The King without a Name More Information
Theatergoers at the Globe never learned the name of the King of Denmark, which appears only in a stage direction in line 177 in both Q2 and F1, once in a speech prefix in Q2 179 only, and not at all in Q1. It seems wrong, therefore, to name the king in every comment about him.
If indeed Shakespeare thought of him by name, his source may have been the play The Tragedy of Claudius Tiberius Nero, published in 1607, but perhaps known by Shakespeare in manuscript—though it appears that the tragedy was more influenced by Hamlet than an influence on it. Possibly Shakespeare was thinking of the historical Claudius, the Roman Emperor. It is one of several names in the play that is not Danish. Or perhaps he didn't mean to name the king at all. Because the name Claudio appears in Q2 and F1 [3051], it's possible that either it or the name Claudius is an error. Though Shakespeare sometimes confusingly doubles names, as in As You Like it, with two Jaqueses, it seems that in the case of Hamlet he wanted the king, like Lady Macbeth, to be nameless. In contrast, Gertrude’s name appears often in Q2 speech prefixes, and is spoken aloud by the king thirteen times (fourteen in Q2), sometimes preceded by a "sweet" or a "good," but not at that key moment when he asks her (or pleads with her, or commands her) not to drink from the poisoned cup [3760]. He calls himself "Denmark" [309] and is called that by Gertrude [249]. Marcellus refers to him as the Dane [21], a name the king gives to himself also [224]. Hamlet calls his father "royal Dane" [630], perhaps denying his uncle that title. When he announces himself at Ophelia's grave site, he calls himself, Hamlet the Dane [3453], but at the last calls the king, sarcastically, "damned Dane" [3808]. Characters refer to him as my lord and as the king, the latter never by Gertrude, most often by Hamlet, starting at line 612.
Ironically, the king without a name seems to have down pat the salesman's ploy of referring to people by given name. Of the thirty-two times Laertes’s name appears in character's speeches, fourteen of them are by the king, five in the second scene within a few lines. The king is the one who names Hamlet most often—to him and about him—twenty-six times compared to the queen’s seventeen times. That is not unexpected, but he also addresses Ophelia by name, particularly in her first mad scene.
Editors write explicatory notes about the king's lines less frequently than those of other characters. That could mean that Shakespeare makes his speech clear, unambiguous. A rough survey shows that F1 and Q8, both perhaps performance texts, capitalize more of his words than those of other characters'. Perhaps the capitalization was meant as a guide for an actor, never apparently a member of the first team, who could use the capitals to guide his reading.
Opinion about the king varies widely. To Samuel Johnson, the king is a drunkard along with his other villainous traits. To A. C. Bradley, he is a small man, with the vices and virtues of an insignificant figure. To G. Wilson Knight he is a good person who committed one crime, and since that was before the play begins, it hardly matters: all would have been well in Denmark if only Hamlet had returned quietly to Wittenberg. To S. L. Bethell he is a flat character, to whom Shakespeare gives some uncharacteristic speeches simply because he wants to write something interesting or because he needs a good speech to liven a scene when Hamlet is absent. To George Lymon Kittredge, the king is Hamlet's "mighty opposite," and the play is about the struggle between two giants, both somewhat flawed. The truth about him is the same as that for almost every major character in Hamlet—it depends. In production he can be as impressively powerful as is Kozintsev's king; a drunkard as is Richardson's, a pleasant always-smiling bland fellow as is Lyth's non-entity. In the history of productions, his part is sharply cut and often given to a second-string actor. He is endlessly malleable. The description writers give of him seem, as usual, to tell more about themselves than about Shakespeare's intention.

Hemings (in The Jewes Tragedy, published 1662, apud Ingleby et al. 1932, 2:121) starts a speech by Eliezer, in 3.2, with a line reminiscent of the most famous line in Hamlet [see CN 1710]. Hemings follows with lines that suggest a modicum of conscience in the character by giving him lines questioning his treachery. Because Hemings is thinking of Hamlet, perhaps the speech reflects his view of Claudius before he murders:
Elea. To be, or not to be, I there's the doubt
For to be Sovereign by unlawful means,
Is but to be a slave to base desire,
And where's my honour then?
Rymer (1677 apud Vickers, 1974, 1:191) asserts that kings in literature should be heroes, not villains—it's a “Poetical right.
Langbaine (1691, apud Allusion Book 2: 363): “I know not whether this story be true or false; but I cannot find it in the List given by Dr. Heylin [[p. 458]] such a King of Denmark as .Claudius All I can inform the Reader, is the Names of those Authors what have written of the Affairs of Denmark and Norway; and must leave it to their further search: Saxo-Grammaticus, Idacious, Crantzius, Puntanus &c.
Pope ([pope2] ed. 1728, 8: U5): Claudius is, or represents: “Blood, Incest, and Usurpation.”
Stubbs (1736, pp. 12-13), in a note for the beginning of the second scene, says: “It is very natural and apropos, that the King should bring some plausible Excuse for marrying his Brother’s Wife so soon after the Decease of his Brother, which he does in his first Speech in this Scene: It would else have too soon revolted the Spectators against such an unusual Proceeding. All the Speeches of the King in this Scene to his Ambassadors Cornelius and Voltimand, and to Laertes, and to Prince Hamlet, are entirely Fawning, and full of Dissimulation, and make him well deserve the Character which the Prince afterwards gives him, of smiling, damn’d Villain, &c. when he is informed of his Crime. ”
Ed. note: It is interesting that he thinks that the audience should not immediately be against Claudius and that the marriage, unexplained, would have revolted them.
Johnson ([john] ed. 1765, "Preface." 1: xii-xiii): <p. xii> “ . . . Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Usurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious . . . . He was inclined to shew </p. xii> <p. xiii> an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but despicable, he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings.” </p. xiii>
Ed. note: Wilson (1935, rpt. 1986, p. 35), quoting this passage points out that Johnson refers to the king as a usurper in passing, as if it is a known and accepted fact.
Johnson ([john] ed. 1765, CN 308): “The King's intemperance is very strongly impressed; every thing that happens to him gives him occasion to drink.”
Johnson ([john] ed. 1765, TLN 2332): “The King kept the crown from the right heir.”
Greene (1770; apud Vickers 5:418): quotes, as an example of hyperbole, Claudius's lines in 3.3 [TLN 2346-57]“Bow stubborn knees . . . new-born babe.”
Davies (1784, 3: 145-7): In Garrick's production of 1772, <p. 145> “When Hamlet attacks the King, he draws his sword and defends himself, and is killed in the rencounter. Laertes and Hamlet die of their mutual wounds.
“To such material changes, in this favourite tragedy, the audience submitted during the life of the alterer; but they did not approve what they barely endured. The scenes and characters of Shakespeare, with all their blemishes, will not bear radical or violent alteration. The author had drawn Claudius a coward, as well as a villain and usurper; and this strong check upon guilt and stigma upon wickedness ought by no means to be removed. Garrick, if I remember right, used to say, that, before </p. 146> <p. 147> his alteration of Hamlet, the King used to be stuck like a pig on the stage: but, by giving the murderer courage, this great actor did not see that he lessened the meanness of his character, which the author takes care to inculcate throughout the play. The brave villain, like Rich. III. we justly hate, but we cannot despise him. ” </p. 147>
Capell (1774, 1:1:123) says that Heath interprets TLN 292 and ff correctly [See CN] (“no less nobility,” etc.): “and the passage, thus consider'd, is of a piece with many others that come from this speaker, which are attir'd in a pompous obscurity.”
Guthrie (apud Town & Country 7 [1775], 371): Note “how [Sh.] has varied guilty ambition in a species so narrow in itself, that it seems impossible to diversify it. For we see Hamlet's father-in-law, Macbeth, King John, and King Richard, all rising to royalty by murdering their kindred kings. Yet what a character has Shakespeare affixed to every instance of the same species. Observe the remorse of the Dane, how varied it is from the distraction of the Scot; mark the confusion of John, how different from them both; while the close, the vigilant, the jealous guilt of Richard is peculiar to himself! ”
Blackstone (apud Malone, 1780, 1:350-1) <p. 350> says: “I agree with Mr. Steevens, that the crown of Denmark (as in most of the Gothick kingdoms) was elective, and not hereditary; though it might be customary, in elections, to pay some attention to the royal blood, which by degrees produced hereditary succession. Why then do the rest of the commentators so often treat Claudius as an usurper, who had deprived young Hamlet of his right by heirship to his father's crown? Hamlet calls him drunkard, murderer, and villain; one who had carryed the election by low and mean practices; had </p.350 ><p. 351> 'Popt in between the election and my hopes' had 'From a shelf the precious diadem stole, /And put it in his pocket:' but never hints at his being an usurper. His discontent arose from his uncle's being preferred before him, not from any legal right which he pretended to set up to the crown. Some regard was probably had to the recommendation of the preceding prince, in electing the successor. And therefore young Hamlet had 'the voice of the king himself for his succession in Denmark;' and he at his own death prophecies that 'the election would light on Fortinbras, who had his dying voice,' conceiving that by the death of his uncle, he himself had been king for an instant and had therefore a right to recommend. When, in the fourth act, the rabble wished to choose Laertes king, I understand that antiquity was forgot, and custom violated, by electing a new king in the lifetime of the old one, and perhaps also by the calling in a stranger to the royal blood.” —E [= Blackstone, identified in the v1785 ed. See note 291] </p. 351>
Coleridge (ms. notes dated 1819 in Ayscough, ed. 1807; rpt. Coleridge, 1998, 12.4:856-7) refers to TLN 2868-70, Claudius' statement about divinity hedging a king: <p. 856> “Proof, as indeed all else is, that Sh. never intended us to see </p. 856><p.857> the King with Hamlet's Eyes—tho' I suspect, the Managers have long done so.” </p. 857> Ed. note: Coleridge does not consider that the speech is by the king, not by Shakespeare.
Päckler-Muskau (1826, p. 92), after praising Sh.'s characters, says, “ . . .There is but one character in this immortal poet's work which always appeared to me ill-drawn and unnatural, nor does any excite less interest in general. This is the king in Hamlet. To mention only one trait, it appears to me quite psychologically false, when the author makes the king kneel down, and then exclaim, "I cannot pray." The king is never represented as an irreligious man, a subtle sceptic, but merely a coarse sensual sinner; now we daily see that a man of this cast can not only pray regularly and zealously, but even pray that his crimes may prosper: like that woman who was found alone in a robber's cave, after the capture of the gang, on her knees, praying earnestly to heaven that the expedition in which she believed them then engaged might be successful, and that they might return laden with booty [[. . . . ]].”
MacDonell (1843, p. 4): the king opposes Laertes' “rebellion with a remorseless courage, notwithstanding the recognition in his own mind of a deed so cruel and base, as having murdered his brother, with the view of gratifying an incestuous and brutal passion.”
Hunter (1845, 2: 217): Hamlet [302] “yields to his mother, while he grants nothing to the request or command of his uncle. The uncle takes this in good part, though it is plain he perceives the distinction made by Hamlet. This is in character with his attempts to ingratiate himself with his cousin (nephew) and his son; and generally, with the plausibility and the willingness to yield anything which it costs nothing to bestow, a feature in the King's character which the Poet has made sufficiently prominent.”
Moberly ( mob2] ed. 1873), re 195-220, the Fortinbras part of the king's speech: “Having got past the awkward part of his speech the king reverts to the tone of determination which even his crime shows to be natural to him.”
Marshall (1875, p. 128), referring to 793, says: “ . . . [Hamlet's] outburst against the King, his uncle . . . contains a key to the character of that villain—a key which no manager, or actor, or commentator ever seems to have seized—namely the fact that the distinguishing feature of Claudius was his bland and amiable plausibility.”
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 110): The king is “unscrupulously active . . . by striking contrast affords an admirable background upon which is thrown into bolder relief the imaginative and over sensitive nature of the inactive hero, Hamlet.”
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 111): “We have only to add to an already overweening ambition the strength of an intensely passionate love for his fair Queen-sister, and we see just the impulse which, acting upon a nature almost devoid of conscience, could lead Claudius unhesitatingly to play the traitor—by one bold stroke to sweep aside the single obstacle—though that obstacle was a brother and a King—which stood between him and the woman who would satisfy at once that love and that ambition.”
Gervinus (1883, pp. 551-2): <p. 551> Claudius “ supplanted on the throne the son of the deceased king, and had even during the life of the latter stolen the affection of his queen by insinuation and gifts. Ambition, thirst of power, and evil desires, had urged him to this unnatural deed; he understood how 'with devotion's visage, and pious action, so to sugar o'er the devil himself,' [1699] that the queen, now his wife, surmises not the murder. No outward comeliness commends the bloated Claudius, whom Hamlet's scornful epithets (paddock, gib, peacock, &c.) designate as a voluptuous vain being whose daily life is passed in scheming and carousing. No inward virtues adorn the hypocritical 'laughing villain;' unless it be that quick perception of his understanding and of his guilty conscience, which makes him attentive to every danger and threat, which makes him interpret every event, every word, and every sigh, and which makes him gather round him with skilful grasp the weakest spies and tools. . . . < /p. 551> <p. 552> Towards the new king the people prove refractory after the death of Polonius, and are ready to establish another sovereign in Laertes [2846]. He is therefore no adversary to be feared, unless it be from the one cause that he himself fears and is cautious. But the young Hamlet has all advantage over him in the favour of the people, who 'dip all his faults in their affection [3026]; nay, even his own mother, who is attached to him by a love almost extravagant, would be an ally to him in case of need rather than to her new consort [3020]. ” </p. 552>
Thom (1883, p. 131) deplores limiting ideas about characters to what can be seen on stage. Claudius is on stage made into “ a stupid stage-villain ” when he should be “the shrewd, bold King Claudius of the play of Hamlet.
MacDonald ( macd] ed. 1885, p. 62): “Claudius has contrived, in an election [xref to 2846, 3569, 3844] probably hastened and secretly influenced, to gain the voice of the representatives at least of the people, and ascend the throne. Hence [Hamlet's] position must have been an irksome one from the first . . . .”
Bradley (1904, p. 138) first discusses the king's good qualities: “As a king he is courteous and never undignified; he performs his ceremonial duties efficiently, and; and he takes good care of the national interests. He nowhere shows cowardice, and when Laertes and the mob force their way into the palace, he confronts a dangerous situation with coolness and address. His love for his ill-gotten wife seems to be quite genuine, and there is no ground for suspecting him of having used her as a mere means to the crown. His conscience, though ineffective, is far from being dead. . . . Nor is he cruel or malevolent.”
Bradley (1904, pp. 138-9) The king is “no tragic character. He had a small nature. If Hamlet may be trusted, he was a man of mean appearance [see 2448. 2566, 2558]. . . . He had the inclination of natures physically weak and morally small towards intrigue and crooked dealing. His instinctive predilection was for poison.”
“He was not, however, stupid, but rather quick-witted and adroit.” The ghost refers to “the witchcraft of his wit. ” Ever smiling, he spoke softly and kindly to those beneath him; “ . . . he never shows resentment, hardly even annoyance. He makes use of Laertes with great dexterity. He had evidently found that a clear head, a general complaisance, a willingness to bend and oblige where he could not overawe, would lead him to his objects—that he could trick men and manage them. </p. 139> <p. 140> “He has a sanguine disposition. When first we see him, all has fallen out to his wishes, and he confidently looks forward to a happy life.”
Malleson (1936, TLS p. 15): In a response to Dover Wilson's view that Claudius was a usurper, a fact, Wilson wrote, that everyone in Sh.'s audience would have understood, Malleson argued that Claudius was no usurper. Never does anyone even hint at that, even Hamlet. The fact makes a difference in Hamlet's character: his goal is not to recover what he thought was his but to do the ghost's bidding.
Trench (1913, p. 53): The king conveys “before the world . . . the impression of generosity and superlative goodwill. . . . But Hamlet's yielding to their wishes evokes a remarkably enthusiastic outburst, Why so much fuss? Why the firing of big guns? Such delight on the King's part over what he takes to mean that Hamlet is going to be fairly amenable looks like evidence of great uneasiness . . . . ” The king mistakes Hamlet entirely in drinking healths to Hamlet, “little knowing that the drinking of healths Hamlet considers a reprehensible custom, and that the military music . . . he will rudely designate a 'bray' [615].”
Travers (trav ed. 1929): “Both the ear and the imagination of Claudius are partial to artillery. [See 311 and compare Cannon 2628+2, blast 3146].”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 49): When he first enters, “the King makes a brilliant figure—the 'very, very peacock' of Hamlet's later jibe [2156] . . . . In every respect he is a contrast to that gaunt apparition of armored royalty which we have just seen stalking the night”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 52): “Claudius, presented to us at the height of his good fortune, married to his mistress (that scandalous spectre laid unrevealed) and confirmed in this as in his assumption of the crown by a complaisant Council, is naturally content that Hamlet should be his heir, genuinely ready, no doubt, to play the loving father to him. But his tactless tact, the mellifluous excess of speech, the smiling kindness overdone—such falseness shows that he feels his position to be false.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 205): “Claudius, all outward candor, keeps his secret close and moves surely to his ends.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 217): the king is “benevolent to Laertes; gentle but firm with the recalcitrant Hamlet. His kindliness is a little too feline, perhaps, his discourse somewhat overelaborate, his courtesy too uniform to be quite unfeigned; and his protests of fatherly love for [Hamlet], whose succession—with whatever legal warrant—he has forestalled, may slightly smack of hypocrisy. But these are harsh criticisms. He is . . . naturally anxious . . . to stand well with everyone around him. And even Hamlet, his mind only on the marriage, does not hold Claudius so heavily to blame for it. The shame is his mother's.”
And in the second act, “Everything he does and says is far more consistent with innocence than guilt.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 218): Because Sh. does not give him early opportunities to disclose himself, the king's “easy, equable assurance” can be set against “Hamlet's hesitancies, doubts and nervous introspection.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 222): “ . . . Once the reproachful figure no longer paces his lobbies, he can . . . banish both the old crime and the new from his mind . . . [and so we see him] grieving genuinely enough for Polonius' death, over Ophelia's suffering, and facing Laertes with unforced dignity and calm. No merely well-masked villain; but the man he would be, could his crimes but be left out of account; the man that he likes to be able to feel that he is. . . . It is this interim picture of him, with its touches of inconsistency, which does most to make Claudius a figure of flesh and blood.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 223): “Claudius does not quite come unquestioningly to life. The material for the character is there . . . . But Shakespeare has left some of it incompletely developed, some indeed to implication only, and the actor must use judgment in assembling it. . . . . But an actor will instinctively make himself Counsel for the Defense for the Defense of the part he plays, when he can.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 223): “Is Claudius a drunkard? We have the evidence of the 'jocund healths' he means to drink, and Hamlet's scornful 'The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse, Keeps wassail, and the staggering upspring reels [612-13] . . . ' with its sequent 'This heavy-headed revel . . . clepe us drunkards' [621+1 - 621+3]. But we hear no more of this, except when Hamlet would rather kill is enemy 'drunk asleep' [2364] than at his prayers . . . and we see nothing of it at all. So Shakespeare does not want to stress it. ”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 225 n. 19) describes “an Italian actor who had evidently been greatly struck by [the drinking] aspect of the character, for his nose was reddened and he played the part bibulously throughout. This lightened the play very much. And here, my dear Dover Wilson, is another possible answer to the burning question: Did Claudius see the Dumb Show? My Italian, at the juncture, was far too muzzy and hilarious to have seen any offense—or, indeed, anything at all in it.”
Knight (1930, p. 37) praises Claudius in discussing his responses to the ambassadors from Norway: “Tact has found an easy settlement where arms and opposition might have wasted the strength of Denmark. Notice his reservation of detailed attention when once he knows the main issues are clear; the courteous yet dignified attitude to his subordinates and the true leader's consideration for their comfort; and the invitation to the feast. The impression given by these speeches is one of quick efficiency—the efficiency of a man who can dispose of business without unnecessary circumstance, and so leaves himself time for enjoying the good things of life: a man kindly, confident, and fond of pleasure.
“Now throughout the first half of the play Claudius is the typical kindly uncle, besides being a good king. His advice to Hamlet about his exaggerated mourning for his father's death is admirable common sense: [quotes 283-8, "Fie . . . so"]”
Knight (1930, p. 38): Claudius's conscience [1701-6] shows that he is not a “hardened criminal.” The fact that his reaction to the play is remorseful fear for his soul rather than fear of Hamlet proves that he is basically a good man.
Knight (1930, p. 38): If it were not for Hamlet, Claudius could have remained “a good and gentle king . . . . ” Hamlet's actions force him into the crimes he commits after the play scene. “Hamlet is a danger to the state . . . He is an inhuman—or even superhuman—presence, whose consciousness . . . is centred on death. As King of Denmark he would have been a thousand times more dangerous than Claudius.” At the moment he kneels to pray, and Hamlet enters upon the scene, Claudius is the more righteous man.
Knight (1930, p. 41) cannot blame Claudius from plotting against Hamlet with Laertes. “He has, it is true, committed a dastardly murder, but in the play he gives us the impression of genuine penitence and a host of good qualities. ” His virtues are manifest. “So are his faults. . . . But I would point clearly that, in the movement of the play, his faults are forced upon him, and he is distinguished by creative and wise action, a sense of purposes, benevolence, a faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen . . . . In short, he is very human. Now these are the very qualities Hamlet lacks. Hamlet is inhuman.”
Knight (1930, p. 45): The king, “whose crime originally placed him [in a state of evil]. is in a state of healthy and robust spiritual life. ” [Ed. note: earlier, Knight had commented on the king's burst of conscience when setting up Ophelia as bait and when praying; these two instances are Knight's support for "healthy and robust spiritual life."]
Wilson (1935, pp. 34-5) disagrees with Blackstone (see above, 1780) and others, about the throne being elective. Therefore, Claudius is more clearly, in J. W. Wilson's formulation, a usurper. His main point is that the idea of election comes quite late in the play, while the idea of usurpation is what is first impressed upon an audience. <p. 34> “The usurpation is one of the main factors in the plot of Hamlet. . . .
“It is instructive to glance at the history of the matter in Shakespearean criticism. Dr Johnson and most other eighteenth-century commentators . . . shared the Elizabethan standpoint and always spoke of Hamlet as robbed </p. 34> <p. 35> of his rightful inheritance” What Blackstone has to say about historical verities has nothing to do with the effect of the play. </p. 35> <p. 36> Relying on a passage from Brüdermord, the 1625 adaptation of Hamletthat may owe something to an early version of Shakespeare's play, Hamlet almost immediately complains to Horatio about the king's theft of what should have been his.
“In any case, had Shakespeare himself intended to make use of [Blackstone's idea about election]. we can be certain not only that he would have said more about it, but that he would have said it much earlier in the play.”
Ed. note: Others have argued that Hamlet does not complain about the election until very late in the play. He shows little sign of wishing to be king.
Schücking (1937, p.3), on the play scene: “ . . . The dramatic tension, raised to fever heat, ultimately hangs on the reaction of one single personage: in other words, the expression on the King's face becomes the turning-point of the whole dramatic action.”
Schücking (1937, p. 6): “The King, at the outset calm and certain of himself, loses something of his self-confidence as his position grows more difficult; in the end he is forced to drop the mask of honesty which he has so long successfully worn, and to appear in all his villainy.”
Schücking (1937, p. 38): “That Claudius is a cunning scoundrel is made obvious to us by the revelations of the ghost, and also by the iniquitous way in which he presses Laertes to murder Hamlet; but he is certainly not a 'king of shreds and patches' [2483] or a 'vice [n. 1] of kings' [2477]. His conduct in the first impressive Council scene is altogether dignified, and he shows himself quite capable of carrying out the important duties of his office. He has a tender love for his wife [3019]; he is touched by Ophelia's fate [2811], and at a moment of grave danger, during Laertes' rebellion, he conducts himself with manly courage and coolheadedness [2865 ff.]. ”
[n.1] 'Buffoon.'
Schücking (1937, p. 60) considers it a lapse of memory that Sh. names a servant Claudio, when the king has the name Claudius because a servant would not have the same name as his [3051]. He does point out that the king's name occurs only in one stage direction [176 in both Q2 and F1, and in one speech prefix 179, Q2 only]. Ed. note: Perhaps it's the name Claudio that is the error. Neither name appears in Q1
Kittredge ([kit2 ed. 1939, into. xviii-xx): <p. xviii> “King Claudius is a superb figure—almost as great a dramatic creation as Hamlet himself. His intellectual powers are of the highest order. He is eloquent—formal when formality is appropriate (as in the speech from the throne), graciously familiar when familiarity is in place (as in his treatment of the family of Polonius), persuasive to an almost superhuman degree ( as in his manipulations of the insurgent Laertes) —always </p. xviii> <p. xix> and everywhere a model of royal dignity. His courage is manifested under the most terrifying circumstances, when the mob breaks into the palace. His self-control when the dumb show enacts his secret crime before his eyes is nothing less than marvellous. It is no accident that Shakespeare gave him that phrase which ahs become the ultimate pronouncement of the divine right of monarchy: 'Such divinity doth hedge a king' [2868].
“Intellectually, then, we must admit Claudius to as high a rank as Hamlet himself.” Kittredge praises also the king's moral sensibility; he understands his crime and his own nature. </p. xix> <p. xx> “His crime was a crime of passion . . . .
“To neglect or undervalue Claudius destroys the balance of the tragedy. On the stage, for generations his lines were cut unmercifully, and his role was assigned to an inferior actor . . . . And Hamlet has suffered accordingly, and has too often been conceived as a pathetic creature of high imagination but feeble will. Otherwise, why didn't he abolish this ineffectual obstacle with a sweep of his arm. . . . Of Shakespeare's intent there can be no doubt. The play is a content between two great opponents. This Hamlet understands; and he expresses the truth in his words to Horatio [3565], which night well be a summarizing motto for the play [quotes 3564-5, "the pass . . . opposites.” </p. xx> Ed. note: Kittredge's footnotes are here omitted. See his CN on the king: 222, 290-9, 2477, etc.
Bethell (1944, p. 92; 1970, pp. 110-11): <p. 110> Claudius “has one scene in which, through episodic intensification, he is endowed with a character quite different from that which normally he sustains. Claudius is the villain of the piece, a smiling villain, with a suave, disarming manner; but faced with the Laertes uprising, he suddenly displays a surprising combination of quiet courage and royal dignity: [quotes 2865-72]. This apparent change of nature may, of course, be explained on sound psychological principles; but such an explanation would scarcely be consistent with the usual simplicity of Shakespeare's characterization.”
Bethell explains why Claudius suddenly becomes such a heroic figure on purely theatrical grounds: “Hamlet, the real hero, is off the stage . . .; we already have a villain in Laertes . . . and a scene is always better for the strong contrast between two opponents. Claudius falls naturally into the hero's role. Moreover, in those days a good royalist could hardly refuse so admirable an opportunity to present royalty at its best, standing calm and superior, hedged with divinity against the forces of rebellion and disorder. The old Claudius is therefore set </p. 110> <p. 111> aside for a time—replaced by a dignified figure with whom we are bound to sympathize: the scene itself is strengthened, and any political feeling aroused is strictly as it ought to be.” </p. 111>
Ellis-Fermor, Una. (1945, rpt. 1964, p. 41), in a chapter on "Shakespeare's Political Plays," cites Claudius as an effective leader, putting him among those few Shn rulers who avoid “the fatal blindness that arrogates to itself the privileges of kingship while disregarding the responsibilities on whose account alone those privileges exist.”
Ellis-Fermor, Una. (1945, rpt. 1964, p. 48): He is a “full picture of a successful ruler . . . (the somewhat cynical implications of [Sh.'s selection of Claudius to depict such a ruler] constitute a study in themselves) . . . .”
Ellis-Fermor, Una. (1945, rpt. 1964, pp. 88-9): <p. 88> “The imagery of Claudius and Gertrude furthers. without our necessarily being aware of the means, our understanding both of their characters and their relationship. . . . The imagery of Claudius's public speech differs from that of his speech in private, though there are some fundamental resemblances. On formal occasions it is brief, superficial, and commonplace, illustrating his statements in a clear efficient way that is hardly ever imaginative. The subjects of his images are homely, drawn from everyday life, frequently from warfare or military life, and sometimes from the operations of justice. He seldom surprises us by revealing anything beneath the surface, though he can sometimes, as in endeavouring to conciliate Laertes, become inept [see her CN 3026]. In private life, when </p. 88> <p. 89> he is alone, with Gertrude whom he can deceive easily or with certain courtiers such as Polonius whom he deceives hardly less easily, it is more vigorous and reveals more and more of the obsessions against which he struggles. It is till simple and generally homely. the index of a mind that is astute and practical rather than speculative or imaginative. But it is no longer superficial or perfunctory. The disturbance and sickness of his mind betrays itself in ever-recurring images of pestilence, infection, poison, and disease, especially hidden disease that feeds on the 'pith of life,' to reveal itself suddenly. The habit of concealment and the dreads of discovery find their release in images of painting and false colouring like that of the 'harlot's cheek'; sin is 'rank' and 'smells to heaven' [2312].” </p. 89> [See also Ellis-Fermor in CN 3026.]
van Lennep (1950, p. 11) creates a version of the king without a single redeeming feature. “The would-be-ingratiating-suave-and-gracious-king's long effusion [268-99], his fatuous, unctuous grandiloquence, as pompous as it is unmoving, evokes no response.”
van Lennep, C. (1950, p. 55): “On his [Hamlet's] opponent's side the duel will be waged with demonic cunning, dissimulation and the unshakable resolve to kill him by fiendishly perfidious means: one rapier's point envenomed and unabated, . . . and Laertes will use that rapier.”
Joseph (1953, pp. 51-2): <p. 51> “when the play opens it is by no means certain that Claudius is a villain. Even when the Prince swears vengeance there is still a strong possibility that the Ghost's word ought not to be taken. . . . ” In his first scenes he spears to have “a clear conscience: [we have seen] a very gracious and most noble-looking renaissance monarch [transacting] private and public business with regal assurance, [disposing] of the problem of young Fortinbras, sending a statesmanlike embassy to the old king.” He declares his “sincere interest in the affairs of [Polonius and his family].
“When Claudius turns to 'my cousin Hamlet, and my son,' there is the same healthy assurance, tempered now with a sympathetic restraint which suggests immeasurable reserves of strength and kindliness. . . . . Claudius seems sincere. When the Prince has promised his mother to remain, the gloriousness of Claudius is even more pro- </p. 51> <p. 52> nounced: now the court departs in a magnificent procession, joyfully expectant of great splendour and felicities to come, with their king proclaiming to the world a liberality and magnanimity of soul which renaissance minds found fitting in a monarch.”
Joseph (1953, p. 53): “From one point of view, then, the progress of the play is a revelation of the quality of Claudius' villainy . . . The peculiar quality of this hypocrite lies in his ability not merely to hide evil, but to present it openly when he chooses.”
Joseph (1953, p. 62): “Claudius dares to be both a villain and a hypocrite; his heart does not smile with his face; he is guilty of murder and incest, the smile on his face hides guilt and the planning of yet more villainy in his heart.”
Joseph (1953, p. 66): “The dramatist is thinking of Claudius in terms of Cain, who is associated in the Bible, not only with the murder of a brother, but with a hypocritical sacrifice which was literally a foul stench.” Sh. alludes to Cain in 1.2 ['first corse,' 287] and in the king's prayer 3.3 ['primal eldest curse . . . a brother's murder,' 2313-14]
Joseph (1953, p.68): Spurgeon “has assumed that the imagery of disease expresses Shakespeare's attitude to Hamlet, [but] there are stronger grounds for suggesting that the hidden corruption which hovers all through the play emanates from the central conception of Claudius and the part which he occupies in the story as a whole. ”
Joseph (1953, p. 70): The hypocrite in the king is so well masked “that it takes half a play before we know him for what he is, and a second half before anyone is in a position to unmask him in public.”
Joseph (1953, p. 72): Within the Elizabethan tradition of abhorrence of hypocrisy, “Claudius can be viewed in the right perspective, not as an unfortunate mixture of good and bad qualities, but as an example of how utter corruption can pass itself off as good . . . .”
Joseph (1953, p. 98), on Hamlet's unveiling of the “hypocrite's pretensions to grandeur [quotes 2475-80],” says that “Milton conceived of Satan in Paradise Lost [4: 183-92] in similar unheroic terms. The would-be splendid rebel has become a sordid outcast, an object of scorn and ridicule.”
Joseph (1953, p.155): In the first movement of the play, “Claudius appears the splendid king, beloved of his people, generous of disposition, well-meaning; but Hamlet is able to awaken our suspicions that his uncle has a different heart beneath the smile . . . .”
Rossiter (1961, pp. 184-5): <p. 184> “Claudius is master of this world, through cunning, resource, a smooth and deceptive affability, and a complete severance of scruple from action. He has a conscience; he is once perfectly aware of the world of higher values: [quotes 2333-8, In . . . nature]. It denotes his intellect to see himself so clearly, but has no bearing whatever on his actions. . . . His is the moral deformity . . . not merely ugly, but terrible, because it has power. It is a blunder to see him as a melodramatic villain, or as merely base; for he is a highly efficient king—a king of smiles, like Bolingbroke, a 'vile politician'—with all the strength that comes from concentration on a narrow pragmatic aim. [See 2448 below] . . . . You only weaken Hamlet by making Claudius less than a 'mighty opposite.' </p. 184> <p. 185> Claudius is never finer than when he faces the insurrection (every inch a King), and then twists Laertes deftly round against Hamlet. Nor is any passage more characteristic of the world that, as in were, draws Hamlet's nature per contra. . . . </p. 185 >
<p. 186> “Claudius, a constructive Machiavel . . . </p. 186> <p. 187> was Shakespeare's imaginative projection of the novus homo: the new species of man, with a new order of conscienceless getting and self-seeking, that seemed to threaten command of a world of weaker and more scrupulous men.” </p. 187>
Robson (1975, p. 303) mentions unanswered questions, including “whether the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius was regarded as incestuous by anyone besides Hamlet and the Ghost.”
Robson (1975, p. 315), who discusses several explanations for king's reactions to the play-scene likes one tentative “reconstruction” because [1] “it is much in keeping with the character of the self-controlled and resourceful King. He is capable, we know, of deep guilt and remorse, but he is not a jumpy, panic-stricken figure. What finally overcomes him is not the mere representation of his own crime but the growing realization that Hamlet knew he had committed it. There was nothing in the dumb-show itself [so Robson says; others would disagree] to bring this home to him: what brought it home to him was Hamlet’s behaviour during the spoken playlet. [2] The second advantage of the theory is that it views the Play Scene as the epitome of the whole action of Hamlet: the long secret duel between Hamlet and the King. In the Play Scene, Hamlet has won the first round. ”
Robson (1975, p. 322): In the play scene, “it is clear that, as he saw it, the King had blenched, and he knew his course [cf. 1637]. But the Play Scene resolves Hamlet's doubt on this point without resolving the doubt of the thoughtful spectator”
Still this interpretation does not suit entirely because like all the other flawed theories it assumes thoughts where there is no speech, no lines, to convey it. . . . “Everything in the text is consistent with the view that the King's interpretation of the Play Scene was the same as the Court's: the Queen had been grossly insulted and, perhaps, the King's life threatened—if we are to assume that the King heard Hamlet's ‘This is one Lucianus, nephew to the King’ [2110-11; since it follows comments directly to the king, it seems likely the king could hear it, but then, it is Ophelia who responds to [Hamlet], so it is also possible in performance that Hamlet turns to her and speaks only so she can hear.] and that, as Babcock suggests, 'nephew' is a Freudian slip.”
Cartwright (1978, p. 112): The king as not a wholly unsympathetic character; “there is something tragic about Claudius.”
Frye, Northrop (1980, pp. 92-3): <p. 92> “The delay in Hamlet meets a corresponding delay, with equally unconvincing excuses, in Claudius. An uncomplicated villain, like Richard III, would have wiped Hamlet out of his life at the first hint of danger, and slept all the better for it. Claudius is a sensuous, even coarse, physical type, with an abounding vitality . . . . </p. 92> <p. 93> So Claudius keeps his distance from Hamlet, not wanting to harm him as yet, only watching. And as he does so the 'mousetrap' play suddenly closes on him.” </p. 93>
Frye, Northrop (1980, p. 98): “Claudius is someone of great potential fatally blocked by something he has done and can never undo.”
Jenkins (ed. 1982, p. 163): “Claudius was cited by Erasmus (Institutio Principis Christian) along with Caligula as the type of the bad ruler; and in the incestuous marriage [to Agrippina, his niece] and the uncle-stepfather the analogue with Hamlet are obvious.” But, Jenkins cautions, the analog takes us only so far.
Hawkes (1985, p. 317), like Kittredge and others before him, takes Hamlet’s description of his adversary very seriously [see 3565].
Hawkes (1985, pp. 316, 317) <p. 316> suggests that Sh. knows and plays upon the European notion that fathers were stern and unapproachable, and uncles easy-going, a role that Claudius takes on. </p. 316> <p. p. 317>The play, having given Claudius so many functions, has promoted him beyond his villain role. Hawkes lists his attributes and functions: brother, father, “lover and later husband to Gertrude, murderer of his brother and thus a Cain figure.” </p. 317>
Hawkes finds it significant that Lucianus is “clearly and coolly presented as a nephew, murdering his uncle [2112]. . . . More than a play within a play, [the play-scene] offers a replay of a replay: the Ghost's revised account of the murder. The Mousetrap looks to the past (the murder) and to the future (the revenge). But something happens to disrupt this linear progression, and we are back again at the beginning.” Ed. note: There is no evidence that the Ghost's account is "revised";— the original cannot be known because it occurred before "Who's there?"]
Mercer (1987, p. 137): “Everything Claudius says asserts an image of an ordered and harmonious society ruled by a politic and judicious King; his whole performance declares that everything is as it should be.”
“ . . . what he looks like is an image of firm but benevolent authority. . . . His is villainy achieved . . . .”
Mercer (1987, pp. 214-15): <p. 214> “ . . . The scene in which we see Claudius struggling to repent reveals him too as utterly failing to conform to the stereotypes of the genre. . . . </p. 214> <p. 214> The more we find out aboout this villain the less he seems to have in common with the crazed megalomaniacs and the ruthless Machivels that swagger across the stages of Kyd and Marston. Indeed, with a subversive irony this scene finally shows us the murderous King beset by an irresolution that seems not very far removed from that which dogs the hero himself.” </p. 215>
Mercer (1987, p. 216): Hamlet says in the prayer scene that he will catch the king when his behavior fits his crime [2364-7). For the audience, however, it is unthinkable that Hamlet could ever catch the king in acts that belong to the revenge tradition but that this king eschews altogether.
Mercer (1987, p. 235), referring to 3110 and the following lines in Q2 only, asserts that “the fact that all things change is used to justify the conclusion that it is best to act upon impulse. [Quotes 3112+5-6.] . . . [The king's] argument is nothing more than a cynical debasement of a major theme, a trick of rhetoric that will persuade Laertes to an act of deep dishonour.”
Bushnell (1990, p. 118), in her book Tragedies of Tyrants chooses to omit Hamlet because Claudius does not fit the pattern she has described, kings who “find that the power and self they built up through the process of gaining the crown [i.e. though lust for power and for sex] are highly unstable.” Hamlet, she says, “is concerned more with tyrannicide than with the tyrant . . . . ”
Ward (1991, pp. 31-3), in his “manipulation of the arts of rhetoric, Claudius is both literally and figuratively an ear poisoner. After poisoning the ear of Old Hamlet, Claudius lives by the 'witchcraft of his wits,' divorcing thought from word and using rhetoric to hide the truth. Elizabethan spectators would likely have seen Claudius’ manipulation of language as the highest abuse of reason . . . . By abusing his gift of language, Claudius has become hopelessly corrupt. In the last scene, the literal and figurative poisoning have become one, and they unite in Claudius. The 'union' is here: Claudius is poisoned by the recoiling of his poisoned words and deeds on himself. Only in death do the two ever merge.” Ed. note: SearchHW "Ward" for her discussions of individual figures associated with particular lines.
David Richman (shaksper 16 Nov. 1993): “Perhaps the satyr is a better lover than Hyperion. In a 1972 Joe Papp production in Central Park, Colleen Dewhurst and James Earl Jones made a sympathetic, sexually electric Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet was a bit of a prig in that production. One (I for one) wanted him to get offstage so they could get on with it.”
Dash (1997, p. 125): the king's response to Gertrude's emotional description of Ophelia's death is coldly self-interested. “ . . .His lack of sympathy, of pity at the news of Ophelia's death” is another step in the estrangement of the royal couple.
Bernice W. Kliman