September 17, 2007

Claudius, King of the Backbone? Not So Much.

KING CLAUDIUS But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son -
HAMLET A little more than kin and less than kind.
KING CLAUDIUS How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
HAMLET Not so, my lord, I am too much i'th' sun.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 1 Scene 2

The harsh nature of the relationship of Hamlet and King Claudius takes mere seconds to perceive. The first words out of Hamlet's mouth are a proverbial riddle: "The nearer in kin the less in kindness." This riddle indicates that "there is little warmth in their new, only nominally closer relationship. Playing on 'kind' in the sense of natural type or offspring, however, he also refers to the incestuousness of the marriage that has produced their unnatural kinship." Oh the genius of Shakespeare to weight such a small line!

Hamlet's line however, isn't truly what interested me about this introductory to the lead characters, it was King Claudius' response, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" Hamlet has slammed Claudius (for lack of a better term) and all Claudius can think to say seems the equivalent of the modern, "Who put a stick up your . . ." well, you get it. And then, then, following Hamlet's response, who should step in but Queen Gertrude! Claudius sure does a great job of standing up for himself initially.

'Tis true, the next time King Claudius speaks is for a 30 line monologue on displays of grief, but doesn't that sound rather generic to you? Is Shakespeare introducing Claudius as a weakling on purpose? I guess that would fit the rest of the play.

Posted by Diana Geleskie at September 17, 2007 12:49 PM | TrackBack

"'Who put a stick up your...' well, you get it." Nice save.

On a more serious note... I'm not fully sure what you mean by Claudius's monologue being generic, but I can see how you figure Shakespeare is introducing him as a weakling. In the background, Claudius gave into the temptation of power by killing his brother. Later in the play, he chooses to kill Hamlet rather than have to deal with the consequences of his previous actions. So, I agree with you. This idea does fit in with the rest of the play.

Posted by: Jennifer Prex at September 17, 2007 10:52 PM

My perception of Hamlet's relationship with Claudius is such: Hamlet is a moody kid who is hanging around, infringing upon "qulaity time" with Gertrude. Gertrude, Hamlet being her son, is preoccupied with her son's depression. Perhaps Hamlet's grief is reminding Claudius of his crime, which is causing him grief.

Claudius, I believe, is a weakling. Nearly backed into a corner, he sends his stepson/nephew off to be killed to save his own hide?! What is more cowardly than that?

Posted by: Daniella Choynowski at September 18, 2007 12:47 AM

Claudius might be giving that speech on grief for Hamlet's benefit, instructing Hamlet on the proper behavior he should show, and pretending to be an authority on grieving for the play-acting he must do over the death of his brother. Of course, the actor portraying Claudius could give a twinge of real guilt to that speech, since we know that Claudius is affected, at least on the surface, by guilt for what he has done.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at September 18, 2007 8:00 AM

This play is all abouty perception and all about charades. Hamlet is the biggest trickster, he knows how to play to a crowd. I don't think that Cladius could have asked forgiveness at anytime because his stealing of the crown was based on greed.

Posted by: Kevin "Kelo The Great" Hinton at September 18, 2007 1:56 PM

Also, let's not forget that Claudius is a newlywed, and Gertrude is very fond of Hamlet. He's certainly trying to establish himself as a loving and understanding family man, so he's kind of walking on eggshells around Hamlet. Later on, Claudius mentions that he could execute Hamlet after he killed Polonius but since the citizens of Denmark all really love Hamlet he'd be shooting himself in the foot politically (I think he actually uses an arrow metaphor). And he's already on shaky political ground because, technically, Hamlet really oughta be king at this point (being the son of a king who just died). So he does take action to get Hamlet killed, but clandestinely. So I don't know if he's weak; his hands are tied. His self-preservation instinct is certainly very strong. He's very shrewd.

Posted by: Matt Henderson at September 18, 2007 5:56 PM

I agree with you Matt, he definately does have self-preservation in mind, but I don't think that is a strength of his character.

On Kevin's blog he addressed the vengence of Hamlet by killing Claudius right away - couldn't Claudius have done the same thing? (Click on my name and you'll get to the entry.)

If Claudius had killed off Hamlet, especially after he is acting insane, I doubt very much if anyone would have thought much of it.

Posted by: Diana Geleskie at September 19, 2007 9:40 AM

The problem is, with no mass media hounding Hamlet and reporting every last little crazy/stupid thing he does like we have nowadays, the general public probably has very little idea how crazy Hamlet's been acting recently. Once word gets out that Claudius has killed Hamlet, they may just latch onto that and plunge Denmark into a state of revolt against this guy who stole the crown and killed off the last true heir to the throne. So while Claudius just up and killing Hamlet might be proof of his singular solidarity regardless of the consequences, it would also be pretty stupid if he wants to stay alive and be an effective ruler in the process.
Also, Hamlet, like Claudius, definitely waits a long while to find out if and when he should kill Claudius. Using a play to figure out if the ghost was real and then deciding to wait when Claudius is doing something sinful in order to send him to hell--that sounds pretty shrewd and calculating.
Is strength defined in the ability to obey one's impulse no matter how destructive the consequences might be? Or is it finding the most effective way to carry out your action? 'Cause if it's the second one, Claudius's plan almost worked--except for when Laertes became a stool pigeon and Gertrude drank the wrong drink. But hey, Hamlet's plan didn't work out perfectly either (a lot of people besides Claudius died, including him). So maybe no one's truly effective in this play, but they definitely are not hesitant to commit their action as long as the situation seems to them to be the most beneficial.

Posted by: Matt Henderson at September 19, 2007 1:15 PM

Good points. With Young Fortinbras out there, whose father had a legitimate beef with the previous king, any further instability is not going to help Denmark survive. Claudius would not be a good ruler if he put his own desire to protect himself from Hamlet above his desire to seek a stable nation -- and in fact by marrying Gerturde and trying to get her to use her maternal influence to calm down Hamlet, Claudius could have been setting himself up for an even stronger position if Hamlet (who seems to be old enough to rule, and would have been next in line after his father) might actually support Claudius as king. (Hamlet doesn't seem to have any ambition to be king... )

Shakespeare was of course working within a loose historical framework, diverging from the historical record when necessary for dramatic effect. THe story of Hamlet's delay is more dramatic than the story of Hamlet's attack, though the delay gives psychological context for the attack that makes the story more emotinally satisfying (though more morally ambiguous, and hence more worth talking about 400 years later).

Posted by: Admin at September 19, 2007 1:28 PM
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