To What Extent, and How, Is Claudius Presented by Shakespeare as a Tragic Villain Without Any Redeeming Features?

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‘Hamlet’ is a revenge tragedy and therefore has a traditional tragic hero and tragic villain. Hamlet follows the typical features of a tragic hero as he is a revenger with a tragic flaw leading to his death. However, it can be seen that Claudius is not a typical villain, as he does appear to have some redeeming features. Literary critic F.C. Hunt stated that ‘Claudius is painted by Shakespeare as bold, keen-sighted and resourceful’. Although all of these features are redeeming and there are many examples of these characteristics are presented throughout the play, this does not necessarily mean that Claudius is a wholly innocent character.

As the King, Shakespeare presents Claudius as an able ruler who is trying to prove his worthiness to his court. This is apparent in Act 1, Scene 2 in Claudius’ opening speech. Claudius can be seen as being sincere in this speech as he mentions the death of his brother: ‘bear our hearts in grief’ (page 15) and he also states that the country is ‘contracted in one brow of woe’ (page 15). His language could be interpreted as heartfelt in his opening speech as he feels genuine sorrow over his brother’s death. This is a redeeming feature as he appears to feel love towards his brother for mentioning him as he takes his place as King. The language Shakespeare uses in Claudius’ opening speech is dismissive about the threat that Denmark may face from Norway due to Fortinbras: ‘So much for him’ (page 17). This is because he wants to display his confidence as a leader and to calm the listeners. This contributes to Claudius’ redeeming features as he appears to be considerate towards the feelings of those within the court. He does not wish to worry them and therefore comes across as an able leader.

It may be interpreted that Claudius is inferior to his predecessor and is trying to provide the court with the reassurance that he can follow on from the previous King. Hamlet states that Claudius is ‘no more like my father/Than I to Hercules’ (page 25). This imagery that Shakespeare uses shows the previous King as a stern warrior in the mold of classical Greek heroes. In contrast, Claudius is a corrupt politician whose weapon is his ability to manipulate others through his skillful use of language.

Shakespeare structures juxtaposition between the setting of Act one, Scene one and Act one, Scene two in order to show a contrast in the reality and the dream in Claudius’ mind. Act one, Scene one takes place outside the castle at the dead of night. This pathetic fallacy creates a foreboding and intense atmosphere, almost predicting the appearance of the Ghost. The Ghost represents the harsh reality that Claudius has to face and the reason for his feelings of guilt. Act one, Scene two contrasts with the previous scene as it takes place inside the castle, with Claudius at the centre. This is Claudius’ dream situation, that he is King of Denmark with Gertrude as his Queen. The dramatic change in setting between scenes makes Claudius appear more oblivious to the consequences of his actions, as he is now centre of attention as King. This disillusion that Claudius appears to be in may deter the audience, as he cannot accept the effect of his actions.

Unlike the majority of speeches throughout the play, Claudius’ opening speech deviates from iambic pentameter. This reflects the disorder that Claudius has created because of the murder. Court life would ordinarily have order and tranquillity and the structure of Claudius’ speech does not reflect this. However, it can be seen that Claudius is trying to restore order through his speech as he settles the court over the threat of Fortinbras: ‘So much for him’ (page 17). However, this is unlikely as Claudius’ actions led to the destruction of many other characters and does not restore order. The fact that the speech itself does not fit in with the typical Shakespearean structure of iambic pentameter, could reflect that Claudius himself does not fit in as the...
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