Hamlet: Character Profile - Claudius


Basic Facts:

Claudius is the King of Denmark and the brother of Old Hamlet (the previous King of Denmark). He is also the husband of Queen Gertrude (previously his sister-in-law), as well as the step-father and uncle of Hamlet. He murders his brother to gain power and eventually dies.


Quotations & Analysis:

Act, Scene




“Though yet of our dear brother’s death the memory be green, and that it us befitted to bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe”



Claudius’ use of transition words such as “Though yet” suggests he is carefully constructing an argument to persuade the court to accept what he has to say. He is also clearly conscious of his brother’s popularity and the way he needs to be seen as grieving for his death in order to assure his popularity with the people of court.


Claudius uses “our” throughout as a technique to either identify himself with the audience or and to assume a position of power / authority over the “kingdom” as he speaks using the royal plural.


When speaking of Gertrude as his “imperial jointress” his reference to matters of state suggests that the marriage is serving his political agenda and subtly suggests to the court that they should not linger on the death of old Hamlet as Claudius has transitioned to a new topic.


Claudius also cunningly reminds / suggests to the courtiers that the marriage was their idea with the line: ‘nor have we herein barr’d your better wisdoms, which have freely gone with this affair all along.” all of which reflects his skills as an astute politician as he engenders support fro the marriage within his audience.



“Now follows that you know young Fortinbras, holding a weak supposal of our worth, or thinking by our late dear brother’s death our state to be disjoint and out of frame, co-leagued with this dream of his advantage, he has not failed to pester us with message importing the surrender of those lands lost by his father, with all bands of law, to our most valiant brother. So much for him.”


The lack of pause as Claudius segues from the death of Old Hamlet to the current political situation prevents others from asking questions or raising any doubts they may have


Claudius continues to reinforce his loyalty to Old Hamlet with his use of “dear” and “valiant” and he depicts himself as a confident and self-assured leader through his reference to Fortinbras as nothing more than a young “[pest]”. A comment that may also be directed at Hamlet, the other potential young upstart in the court.



“Now for ourself, and for this time of meeting, thus much the business is: we have here writ to Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras - who impotent and bedred, scarcely hears of this his nephew’s purpose - to suppress his further gait herein, in that the levies, the lists, and full proportions are all made out of his subject”


“...we here dispatch you, good Cornelius and you, Voltemand, for bearers of this greeting to Old Norway, giving to you no further personal power, to business with the King, more than the scope of these delated articles allow. Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.”


Claudius explanation of the actions he has undertaken to ensure the safety of Denmark not shows his initiative and control over the situation and reinforces the sense of his character as confident and authoritative as there is no uncertainty in first command he gives out.


It is also interesting that Claudius chooses only to deal with the older king of Norway despite the fact that it is the young Fortinbras who is the threat. Perhaps suggesting the way in which Claudius honours (or wants to give the appearance of honoring) traditional hierarchies.


“And now, Laertes, what's the news with you? You told us of some suit; what is't, Laertes? You cannot speak of reason to the Dane, and loose your voice: what wouldst thou beg, Laertes, that shall not be my offer, not thy asking? The head is not more native to the heart, the hand more instrumental to the mouth, than is the throne of Denmark to thy father. What wouldst thou have, Laertes?


Claudius’ continual questioning establishes his authority in this scene but the repetition of Laertes name, which singles him out for attention, suggests an enthusiasm and regard for Laertes which he has not so far displayed to any other character. This may also be intended to flatter Polonius in an attempt to win over a servant previously loyal to Old Hamlet.


Once again Claudius implies his loyalty to traditional power structures through the line “Have you your father’s leave? What says Polonius?”


It is also clear that he is far more sympathetic to Laertes than his own nephew as the line “Take thy fair hour, Laertes, time be thine, and thy best graces spend it at thy will! But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son -” suggests a change of tone and mood when he addresses Hamlet.



Claudius’ soliloquy from lines 87-117

The speech length establishes Claudius’ authority and quite literally deprives Hamlet of a political voice while revealing the lack of interaction between them. Claudius’ desire to keep Hamlet at Elsinore also suggests his feelings of insecurity and politically astute desire to keep Hamlet close at hand.


However the allusion to Cain / Abel suggests his guilty conscience as does his reference to the supernatural which suggests the disruption of the natural order as a result of his unnatural actions



“Why, ‘tis a loving and fair reply. Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come. This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet sits smiling to my heart, in grace whereof…”


Here Claudius uses flattery in the lines “cheer… our chiefest courtier, cousin and our son” to convince Hamlet to stay and his ability to exploit Hamlet’s closeness to Queen suggests his cunning



“Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.” (34)

This line follows King Claudius’ request for Hamlet’s childhood friends to spy on him - a clear indication of his ability to manipulate people through flattery.



“He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found / The head and source of all your son’s distemper.” (54-55)

King Claudius is unconvinced that Hamlet’s apparent mental illness is caused by the grief over his father’s death and the King and Queen’s hasty marriage. King Claudius is scrutinizing the abnormality in Hamlet’s behavior, presumably afraid of being revealed as Old Hamlet’s murderer. There is tension in the relationship between King Claudius and Hamlet, as the King constantly seeks to keep Hamlet under surveillance and preserve his power.



“How may we try it further?” (161)

“We will try it.” (168)

Polonius gives an account of the cause of Hamlet’s madness, and though the Queen, who is evidently closer to Hamlet, seems convinced, King Claudius remains skeptical. He wants absolute certainty and approaches the matter very methodologically by requesting the hypothesis be tested. The question in line 161 either suggests a genuine uncertainty or perhaps an attempt to lure others into taking the initiative when spying on Hamlet so that he appears guiltless.



“Sweet Gertrude, leave us two, / For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither, / That he, as ‘twere by accident, may her / Affront Ophelia.” (28-31)

The lines show Claudius’ display of male dominance, and reinforces the impression created throughout the play that women are of a lower status. Despite Gertrude’s evident intimacy with Hamlet, and thus her probably ability to interpret his disposition, he requests that she leave as he and Polonius spy on Hamlet, as if she is not competent to carry out the deed with them. He also utilizes Ophelia as a tool to lure Hamlet into revealing his state of mind, with no consideration of her recent heartbreak. Claudius commands and controls both female characters. This reinforces his position of power to the audience, but also creates the impression that he lacks compassion.



“The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most pointed word.” (49-52)

Claudius shows a clear sense of guilt, as he admits his sins. He compares his pretence at innocence to that of a prostitute suggesting a tawdry cheapness to his actions and his acknowledgement of the magnitude of his sins suggests that he may possess a conscience. Nonetheless, his inability to relinquish his ill-gotten gains and truly ask for forgiveness and amplifies his hypocrisy, as he knows of the dishonorable nature of his deeds, and yet does nothing to amend them.



“Love? his affections do not that way tend / Nor what he spake, though it lack’d form a little, / Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul, / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood” (161-164)

In Claudius’ ability to see through Hamlet’s supposed act of madness, the audience senses his intelligence and insightfulness. He is very aware of the circumstances and where the loyalties of people around him lie, and so can effectively manipulate the situation. Despite his villainous image, this line may also evoke admiration within the audience for his perceptive abilities.



“Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer’d? / It will be laid to us” (16-17)

Hearing the news of Polonius’ murder, Claudius’ first reaction is not sorrow at his death, but rather a fear that the deed will reflect badly upon him. This suggests Claudius values his reputation and his status and position more than human life, evoking contempt within the audience for his lack of humanity.



“But we will ship him hence, and this vile deed / We must with all our majesty and skill / Both countenance and excuse.” (30-31)

Once again we see Claudius handle troublesome situations with considerable political skill. His decision to send Hamlet away shows his unwillingness to risk the exposure of his own sins. In addition, his belief that his power and intelligence can cover up the deed suggests a sense of confidence in his skill as a king.



“Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are relieved, / or not at all.” (9-11)

This line conveys Claudius’ impatience, and his need for immediate solution to the situations suggests a desperation to him that we have not seen before. Thus we see Claudius’ confidence begin to waver which perhaps foreshadows his eventual downfall.


“[...] By letter congruing to that effect, / The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England, / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me.” (61-64)

The image of a raging fever suggests Claudius’ increasing desperation and his lack of compunction about Hamlet’s murder reflects his ruthlessness.



What is the cause, Laertes, that they rebellion look so giant-like? Let him go, Gertrude, do not fear our person: there’s such divinity doth hedge a king that treason can but peep to what it would, acts little of his will… Dead.

Once again Shakespeare creates an impression of Claudius as an authoritative and manipulative character. Ironically (given that he murdered a king) Claudius reminds Laertes of the importance of hierarchy, duty and honour and belittles Laertes’ as someone who can do little more than ‘peep’ suggesting something fundamentally timid and childish about him.


The impression of Claudius’ confidence is reinforced by his calm approach to the situation and his suggestion that Laertes is over-reacting by making his rebellion “look so giant-like”. The most effective indication of his confidence, however, comes in his one-word answer to Laertes when he asks where his father is. The refusal to offer any further explanation or condolences suggests a real sense of confidence about Claudius at this point.



“[To Laertes.] Strengthen your patience in our last night’s speech, / We’ll put the matter to the present push.” (279-281)

Claudius continues to manipulate Laertes throughout this scene once again suggesting his political astuteness and his ability to manipulate others to serve his own ends.


I do not fear it, I have seen you both; but since he is better’d, we have therefore odds

Here we see further evidence of Claudius cunning and devious side as he seems to favour Hamlet which may help to clear him of any suspicion when Hamlet is killed in the duel.



The King shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath, and in the cup an union shall he throw… “Now the King drinks to Hamlet”

Shakespeare further accentuates Claudius deviousness as he drinks from the cup before he places the poisoned pearl in it. One again a clever strategy used to  clear him of blame as he knows that everyone else saw him drink from the same cup as Hamlet.



Gertrude, do not drink. [Aside] It is the poisoned cup, it is too late.

At this point we do see a sense of conflict as Claudius does attempt to stop Gertrude from drinking from the poisoned cup. Nonetheless his unwillingness to stop her by revealing his plan suggests that he ultimately cares more about his position of power than he does about her.


Claudius’ aside once again suggests the way in which Claudius tends to avoid direct involvement in an affair, preferring instead to get intermediaries to act for him. This perhaps suggests the way in which those in power are manipulative and rarely dirty their hands with their own dirty work.




Role in the Play:

King Claudius is the antagonist of the play, as his decision to murder of Old Hamlet ultimately triggers the tragic events that subsequently occur. In Act I, he is evidently attempting to establish his position of power as King, moving the attention from his brother to himself which draws attention to the corrupting potential of the lust for power. There are, however, repercussions that result from using unnatural means to obtain such power and Shakespeare creates the impression that justice can only really be done when the natural order is restored.


Claudius’ ability manipulate Laertes is also used to reveal his impulsivity, his naivety and the dangers of blindly following the promptings of our hearts or the dictates of honour or duty. Claudius takes advantage of Laertes’ gullibility and attempts to use him to murder Hamlet.