Shakespeare’s Villains – Claudius

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This series on Shakespeare’s villains is being done in partnership with Finding Shakespeare – curating digital stories relating to Shakespeare’s life,  work and times.  Finding Shakespeare is the blog produced by the Collections Team here at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust– you can find out more about Claudius on Thursday 4th August when they post their blog.

Claudius

Some say Claudius is the most stereotypically villainous of Shakespeare’s villains and the most chilling. He is calculating and stops at nothing to achieve his ends

Let’s run quickly over his villainous mis-deeds

  1. He murders old King Hamlet (who happens to be his brother) – poisoning him as he sleeps
  2. He marries the old King’s wife, Queen Gertrude – though whether for love or for power it is unclear.
  3. He attempts to dispatch the Old King’s son young Hamlet – twice (and succeeds once).
  4. He turns others against young Hamlet and convinces them to help him murder him.

Are there any mitigating circumstances? Not a lot but

  1. He may love Gertrude – he may even have been having a relationship with her for sometime whatever Hamlet idealistically thinks about his mother and father’s relationship. Claudius does try to protect Gertrude from drinking poison meant for Hamlet – though in the end he fails.
  2. He seems to have mixed motives for the deeds claiming he did it for the crown, for his own ambition and so he would have Gertrude. Interestingly in Shakespeare’s source for the play the Claudius character claims he murdered his brother the king partly to save Gertrude from a cruel and abusive marriage – a detail which Shakespeare does not include perhaps to make Claudius more villainous his deed less ambivalent.
  3. He may feel guilt about his misdeeds – regretting his inability to pray and claiming his ‘offence is rank’.  Although his main worry seems not to be the wickedness of his deed but the suffering his soul will be subjected to having done it.

 

It is particularly interesting that Shakespeare makes his Claudius a more straightforward villain than the character is in the many sources for Hamlet. Claudius is not cunning, he does not excuse his deeds or attempt much to conceal them (except from his intended victims) in this Claudius is exceptionally cold blooded. Most of Shakespeare’s villains have some sort of excuse for their villainy: Iago had a chip in his shoulder, Macbeth was influenced by witches, Richard III was trying to prove himself able, Don John was bitter about being illegitimate. But Claudius just wanted what his brother had, kingship, power and a nice wife.  And because he wanted it, he took it. Simple as that.

I asked around for stories of stories of sibling rivalry but most people didn’t want to share them on camera. But here is one story from one of our actors Sam and something he did to his brother…

Here are some pictures of the way Claudius has looked on stage over the years.

 

 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Elleoneiram

    I agree. I suppose because he is one of the villains who shows some kind of remorse and attachment (as wicked as he is), I have more sympathy with him than with some. Also, he doesn’t try to knock off young Hamlet (which Richard III surely would have) until Hamlet lets on that he knows. Obviously this in no way justifies his actions. Claudius is exceptionally manipulative and cold most of the time. How fascinating that the original father was more ambiguous than Claudius, considering Hamlet the whole play is so ambiguous.

  • I can see we feel very differently about some of Shakespeare’s characters! Claudius always seems to me to be quite human, perhaps it’s because he admits why he did the murder “my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen”. And he asks “May one be pardon’d and retain th’offense?”.
    Aren’t we all tempted to do something we know is wrong because we really want something? Claudius is a villain because he actually does it, but I think we can all sympathise with his desire for things that aren’t his.

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