The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1789 Wednesday, 18 July 2001
Date: Wednesday, 18 Jul 2001 13:30:40 +0100
Subject: 12.1776 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
Comment: Re: SHK 12.1776 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
Brian Haylett invites me to be serious, so I shall.
The affection for Claudius goes back to Wilson Knight's essay "The
Embassy of Death" in The Wheel of Fire (1930) which concentrates on
"Claudius's virtues" and claims that he "is very human" though, to be
fair, Knights never forgets his 'original crime'.
The fact is that Claudius is a regicide, and a very efficient one, so I
think Brian Haylett had better be clear about his sympathies before he
sentimentalises Claudius. If he were to argue that Claudius demystifies
the institution of kingship by proving that there is no such thing as
the 'divinity that doth hedge the king around/ That treason can but peep
to what it would / Acts little of his will' (4.5.), then he might have a
point, but if that is the case then why does Claudius appeal to the very
ideology that he has demystified?
Claudius has very few soliloquies in the play, and the prayer scene
doesn't give us entirely unmediated access to his private world. So
what then might the source of Haylett's sympathy for Claudius be? In
what ways can he be described as an 'efficient' king? He lacks the
directness of approach that had characterised Old Hamlet's rule, hence
his use of intermediaries: Cornelius and Voltemand, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, Gertrude,Ophelia and Laertes, and his crime finally
emerges into the cold light of day. So much for the claim of
For the most part, what we see of Claudius is the outside. We get few
glimpses into a 'conscience' aside from one brief aside: 'How smart a
lash that speech doth give my conscience', and the prayer scene that
simply leads to impasse, and to no prayer: 'My words fly up my thoughts
remain below / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.' He is not a
'tragic' figure except in a purely journalistic sense.
My reasons for adducing Macbeth as the 'tragedy of Claudius' is that
they both are regicides, but Macbeth comments on the process even as he
is sinking into it. And once he is mired in crime he comments on the
meaninglessness of his life: 'Tomorrow and tomorrow' etc. The claim I
am making is that the germ of Macbeth is in the predicament of Claudius
and that it is the later play that expands it to tragic proportions.
It's not a surprising claim since Shakespeare frequently re-works, and
expands ideas that were launched in earlier plays, in later plays.
Maybe a little less sentimental impressionism (Claudius is a likeable
rogue whose efficiency outweighs his criminality) might be more in
order. Do we ever feel regret at his demise? I think not. We can't say
of Claudius what the chorus says of Marlowe's Faustus: 'Cut is the
branch that might have grown full straight'. If we refrain from
detaching Claudius from the play, and transforming him into a free
autonomous human subject, then we come up with a very different
response, the kind that Haylett seems to be proposing.
If Brian Haylett thinks that he might like to meet Claudius, then all I
can say is that he is a better liberal than I am! If however, he wants
to offer a genuinely political symptomatic reading of Hamlet, then I'm
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