Essay, Research Paper: Claudius And Prince

Literature: Shakespeare

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“Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those
few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty
of the state to defend them.” - Nicolo Machiavelli, from The Prince Italian
political theorist Nicolo Machiavelli speculated that the strongest leaders are
ones who are able to carefully balance appearances to his benefit, strategically
using them to strengthen his regime. If Machiavelli was indeed correct, then
Claudius, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starts off as an ideal Machiavellian
prince. However, as the play develops, Claudius’ loses his previously
immovable command and composure, largely due to his concern over the potential
threat posed by his stepson, Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Claudius
appears to have complete control over Elsinore, as evidenced by his imposing
speech to the court: Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th’
imperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we (as ‘twere with a defeated
joy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and dirge in
marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole) Taken to wife... [1.2: 8-14]
In this scene, Claudius, who has only recently taken the throne after the death
of his brother, addresses some pressing issues. Seeking to create a strong early
impression, Claudius uses his words very carefully, taking great pains to both
mourn his late brother and celebrate his marriage. Furthermore, with the words
“imperial jointress to this warlike state” he justifies the potentially
controversial union by making it appear like a benefit to the entire kingdom.
Claudius is clearly a shrewd politician, for he deliberately emphasizes the
contrast between his marriage and Hamlet’s death, using phrases such as
“defeated joy” and “with an auspicious and a dropping eye.” The benefits
to such an approach are obvious : on one hand Claudius appeals to popular
sentiment by remembering his popular brother, and on the other hand, with his
celebration of his marriage, the King proves that he is ready to move on and
attack his new role with vigor. The oxymoronic phrases “mirth in funeral”
and “dirge in marriage” recall Machiavelli’s words, for Claudius
demonstrates his ability to express whatever emotions make him look wise and
just, showing that he is in command of Denmark, despite his limited experience
as king. Claudius fortifies his majestic appearance by taking decisive and
positive action. When faced with the threat of Fortinbras, he immediately takes
diplomatic measures, sending Cornelius and Voltemand to protect Denmark’s
borders and create an alliance with Norway. Later, Laertes asks for permission
to return to France. Knowing the value of the advice of Laertes’ father,
Polonius, Claudius gives his consent in a jovial manner, thus strengthening his
position with the courtiers. The King even senses the troubled state of Hamlet,
and rather than letting things run their course, Claudius immediately sends
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies. Most importantly, in every decision he
makes, Claudius appears confident, maintaining a balanced temperament in the
public eye. Yet underneath this smooth facade lies a man who is concerned above
all about Hamlet. A full two months after the death of his father, Hamlet
continues to mourn, thereby keeping Old Hamlet’s death in the public
spotlight. Claudius, of course, would much rather forget about the incident, for
that would not only decrease the likelihood of his being discovered but also
help lighten his overburdened conscience. Unfortunately, Hamlet will not let him
nor the public forget. Furthermore, Claudius realizes that Hamlet has a
justified claim to the throne that could destabilize the King’s regime. In an
attempt to alleviate the situation, Claudius stresses Hamlet’s role as his
successor, not potential replacement. Nevertheless, the threat of Hamlet
remains, and Claudius becomes extremely concerned with it. “That do I long to
hear!” [2.2: 53] refers not to news of Fortinbras but to the cause of
Hamlet’s perceived lunacy. This exclamation is also the first time that we
have seen Claudius stray from his even-tempered public appearance, as he reveals
a bit of emotion where Hamlet is concerned. The effect of Hamlet on the King
reaches a climax during The Murder of Gonzago, during which the King’s
composure breaks down completely. Hamlet’s plan to confirm Claudius’ guilt
succeeds brilliantly: when the murder in the play pours poison into Gonzago’s
ear, telling the audience that the plot is based on true events, Claudius
suddenly rises, shouting “Give me some light. Away!” [3.2: 295] Gone is the
calm that had begun to make Claudius a successful leader, replaced by a sudden
outburst of emotion in the presence of many others. Now that Claudius’
even-tempered shell has been shattered, we get a better idea of what he would
call the “inward man.” [2.2: 6] In the third scene of the third act, we
finally see Claudius alone, and he reveals his innermost thoughts while
acknowledging his guilt. Clearly, he is not a cold-blooded and inhumane monster
but a person whose conscience is making him regret his sins. He explores the
similarities between himself and Cain, the Biblical first man to commit
fratricide. Claudius knows that in order to achieve divine salvation he must be
truly repentant for his sins. However, he is unwilling to give up either the
crown or Gertrude, both of which he loves very much, and he resigns himself to a
hopeless fate. Claudius is clearly a tormented man who has fallen victim to the
temptations of love and power, very similar to the situation of Macbeth. At no
point in the play does Claudius glorify his crime; instead, he simply tries to
forget about it and move forwards. In the first two acts, Claudius is able to
mask his turbulent conscience with a confident appearance. While this approach
certainly succeeds in making Claudius a strong leader, it is unable to heal the
deep wounds in his soul. As the King wrestles with the increasingly unenviable
task of balancing his outward appearance with his interior thought, it is
impossible not to feel sorry for him. By the time Claudius kneels and prays, he
has been reduced to a man who is now the slave of one terrible deed. To properly
portray Claudius, an actor must focus on the gradual fall of the character. In
the first two acts, Claudius is at his best, running the court with the
sharpness of an experienced leader and decisively acting on every issue of
importance. Therefore, the actor must have an imposing and confident presence on
stage, for Claudius dominates Elsinore and is in full control of Denmark.
However, by the third act, the King must be depicted as a man who is growing
increasingly fearful of Hamlet, and during the play, Claudius is so startled
that he must appear as though he has seen the ghost of Old Hamlet. But in my
opinion, Claudius’ defining moment comes during his lengthy soliloquy in which
he acknowledges his guilt. As he mourns his condemned soul, he should seem so
helpless that the audience views him with intense pity, for the character of
Claudius, like Macbeth, is not intended to represent evil but instead to show
the universal ability of power to corrupt and to destroy lives in the process.
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