The Charges Against King Claudius
From The King in Hamlet by Howard Mumford Jones. Austin: University Press.
Hamlet's denunciations of his uncle are those of the ghost, but we can as conveniently confine ourselves to the one as
to the other. 1 They, and they alone, find Claudius to be "an incestuous and adulterate beast," "incarnate lewdness,"
"slave's offal," "a smiling, damned villain" — for these are the expressions they use concerning him. Stripped of all
their abusive language (and Hamlet is the only foul-mouthed person in the play), we find the charges against Claudius
amount to these:
(1) He is ill-looking.
(2) He is a coarse, sensual man who (a) drinks too
much and (b) leads a filthy life with the queen.
(3) He has robbed young Hamlet of his crown.
(4) He is at fault in his marriage with Gertrude in that
(a) he seduced the queen; (b) he hurried her into marriage; (c) he committed incest with her.
(5) He is a murderer who has (a) killed his brother
and (b) attempted the assassination of Hamlet.
It is my contention that of these points in the indictment of Claudius some are not true; some require a considerable
modification of Hamlet's statements; and some are open to other explanations than the simple but totally unsatisfactory one that Claudius is a "satyr" who does his beastliness
out of mere love of evil. Let us consider the indictment
in the order in which I have presented it.
(1) Claudius is ill-looking. We have no indication that
Claudius is ill-looking except Hamlet's unsupported statements that he is a "bloat king," a "satyr," "a mildew'd ear."
In his denunciation of Gertrude's conduct Hamlet draws a
carefully particularized portrait of his father which he
contrasts with that of his uncle, but he is totally unable
to name a single physical deformity in Claudius, and takes
refuge in general abuse (III, iv.). On the other hand the
general impression we have of Claudius is that of a stately
and commanding figure, as ancestrally he should be. When
he confronts Laertes and the mob, he tells Gertrude:
"Do not fear [for] our person:
There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would."
(IV, V, 119-121)
a silly performance, did not Claudius possess a commanding
port and embody something of kingly divinity. Lastly,
Claudius retains the devoted love of Gertrude throughout
the play, even after Hamlet's denunciation of him, for we
find her protecting Claudius in the scene with Laertes; and
it is difficult to think of Hamlet's mother linked to the ape
and beast that Hamlet's lurid curses picture for us. For
lack of evidence this charge must be thrown out of court.
(2) Claudius is a coarse, sensual man who (a) drinks
too much and (b) leads a filthy life with the queen. Let us
consider the second charge under its two heads, (a)
Drunkenness is, as we know, a national trait; and in bringing this charge Hamlet would also seem to be condemning
his father and his grandfather before him. But however this may be the nation is not so drunken as Hamlet supposes — has, indeed, singular fits of sobriety, since throughout five acts of Shakespeare's longest tragedy, we do not
see a single drunken man. Claudius, on every occasion,
(how unlike Lepidus in Antony and Cleopatra!) is in full
possession of his faculties. We know of Claudius's drinking on two occasions only: (1) when he carouses in honor of Hamlet's decision to remain at Elsinore; (2) during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.
Both of these are public occasions, when it is Claudius' policy to flatter the people;
and so he drinks and dances. Nowhere in the play do we
see, or hear of, Claudius when he thinks or acts or talks
like a drunken man. This charge can not be substantiated.
(b) Hamlet tells us also that Claudius is an arrant sensualist, and his picture of Claudius in the queen's bed is of a
sort to turn the stomach. But what can Hamlet know of the intimacies of the conjugal chamber? We must fall back
on the explanation that Claudius' general character justifies Hamlet's imaginative description. Unfortunately for
Hamlet, no one else in the play finds Claudius unchaste.
There is no gossip about the sensuality of his relations with
Gertrude, such as there is about the sensuality of Antony's
relations with Cleopatra. We have no account of other
women he has debauched, as we have a list of Macbeth's
villainies. We have no pregnant comment in this play such
as Ulysses makes of Cressida.
There is no scene like that
between Charmian and the Soothsayer, to illumine as by a
lightning flash the licentiousness of the Danish court. And
the ruler of that court throughout the play never utters an
unchaste thought or a licentious jest. On the contrary his
relations with Gertrude, his attitude toward Ophelia, are
marked by the strictest propriety. He does not kiss his wife,
he does not fondle her, he does not pinch her cheek, he does
not paddle in her neck, he does not do any of the things
that Hamlet would have us believe are second nature with
him. He is not, in short, so far as we can determine, a
"satyr,'' a "beast," or any other of the elaborate bits of
abuse which Hamlet uses.
Hamlet, on the other hand, is filthy-minded. 1a
to his mother, even by the Elizabethan standard, are exaggerated, gross and insulting. Hamlet forces Guildenstern
to a dirty jest. Hamlet abuses the innocent Ophelia in the language of the gutter. Hamlet makes obscene jokes in
the play-scene. Though we may excuse all this as acting or because it springs from the repression of his nature, we
must admit, I think, that Hamlet, mad or sane, acting or
natural, is more ready to bring charges of this kind than to
sustain them, and that the only ground for supposing that
Claudius is sensual must be his hasty marriage with Gertrude — to be examined later.
These counts aside, there remains the matter of Claudius' coarseness. Coarseness, however, is a matter of definition. Hamlet wants to wear mourning all his life; Claudius tells him to take it off and go to work. Hamlet can not
stand anything that is not caviare to the multitude ; the common people want a jig or a tale of bawdry. Hamlet wonders how the grave-diggers can so stultify their feelings as
to sing; the first clown takes a professional pride in knowing when bodies will rot. Which of these attitudes is
For the purposes of state Hamlet's emotional metaphysics is as wrong as Claudius' murder. Hamlet
is tender-minded, Claudius is tough-minded. Hamlet anticipates Schopenhauer; Claudius is a precursor of Benjamin
Franklin. Romanticist and realist, idealist and practical man, dreamer and man of affairs — the opposition is eternal,
and the tragedy consists in part in this very fact. To say that Claudius is "coarse" is, therefore, merely to say that he
is not Hamlet — fire and water are not more opposite.
not this, then, all that Hamlet's complaints, or the complaints we make for him under this head, amount to in
(3) Claudius has robbed young Hamlet of his crown.
It is not clear how seriously Hamlet thinks of Claudius as one who has robbed him of his crown, for, as we have seen,
he cares little for matters of state, and it is not until late in the play that he makes a positive statement. After his
interview with the ghost, he says the time is out of joint and he must set it right; this he utters aloud for the benefit
of his two friends (I, v, 189-190); and it is possible he
means them to think of him as one robbed of his crown.
However this may be, the most natural explanation of Hamlet's madness that Rosencrantz can think of, and the one
on which he hopes Hamlet will talk freely in order to gain Rosencrantz as a partisan, is the question of the crown;
and it is noticeable that Hamlet neither affirms nor denies Rosencrantz' statement. Indeed, he has apparently reflected on the usefulness of such a subterfuge, for we find
him telling Rosencrantz in another scene:
"Sir, I lack advancement,"
(III, ii, 331)
and after Rosencrantz has tried to egg him on by by the
ordinary device of a denial, there comes the scene with the
recorders. Hamlet tells Gertrude that Claudius stole the crown, but he does not say or imply that it was stolen from
him, Hamlet. He means, I take it, that the coronation of
his uncle was irregular:
"A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings;
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole
And put it in his pocket!"
(III, iv, 96-101)
He tells Horatio, with whom he is always frank and honest,
"Popp'd in between the election and my hopes;"
(V, ii, 65)
but it is in the very last conversation they have alone, and in the second scene of the last act, and nothing comes of it.
Now Hamlet, as Werder points out, is eager to find some pretext for killing Claudius, and it is largely his inability
to find one that makes him appear weak-willed and indecisive. If there were any possibility of using the robbery
charge as a rallying cry, we should, I think, find Hamlet employing it. But he does not use it. He toys with the
idea through four acts, trying it out, so to speak, and finding it impracticable. It would seem therefore that Hamlet
himself, for the most part, regards the robbery argument as thin.
But after Claudius has played into his hands with
his scheme for assassinating the prince, after Hamlet has documentary proof of that plot, and especially after Laertes'
uprising, Hamlet seems to find the idea pragmatically valuable and so, possibly with some design of later developing
the argument, he sketches for Horatio a kind of campaign platform (and later he directs Horatio how this is to be
used: "tell my story right"), and includes the robbery argument (V, ii, 63-70) . But the end comes unexpectedly as is
usual with Shakespeare, whose characters seldom seem quite ready to die, and we do not know what Hamlet's
method of attack would have been.
The sole right that Hamlet can have to the crown of Denmark is that he is the son of the late king. By insisting
that Claudius has not been properly elected, he can seem to strengthen his case, but that argument is clearly beside
the point. Now Denmark is not a hereditary monarchy, or at least was not before Claudius' time. Hamlet tells
us two or three times it is an elective monarchy, and himself votes for Fortinbras just before he dies. Hence, Hamlet's
hereditary right is, by his own argument, swept away.
The only remaining plea is that, since Claudius failed to go
through the form of an election, the claims of Hamlet as a candidate have not been properly considered. This is the
statement he makes to Horatio: Claudius has ruined his "hopes." But the rights of a candidate for the presidency
of the United States do not give him any right to the presidency, and no more do Hamlet's wrongs as a possible candidate for the Danish crown entitle him to be king in Elsinore.
Hamlet's inability to make out a good case for the crown is again the result, it seems to me, of Claudius' extraordinary shrewdness. As I say, Claudius was apparently never
"elected" to the crown. Why not? Possibly upon the sudden death of old Hamlet, and in the serious condition of
affairs, an election was inadvisable. Possibly the marriage
in some way satisfied the law. 2 Possibly Claudius simply
mounted the throne. But at any rate, Claudius could be
"elected" whenever he chose to be, Hamlet or no Hamlet;
there is no doubt of it, for the court unanimously approve
of him and of the marriage (he has "freely" consulted
their "better wisdoms" (I, ii, 15) in the matter).
it would be so easy to do so, he does not seem in the least
uneasy because he has not been legally elected king. Why
does he not strengthen his position and shut Hamlet's
Claudius, with the tacit consent of the court, is apparently
trying to change Denmark from an elective to a hereditary
monarchy with a view to strengthening the state. 3 With that end in view he publicly announces that Hamlet is his
heir. Hamlet, as Rosencrantz points out, can not complain. Popular sentiment is satisfied. If Hamlet argues for the
elective system, Claudius is sure to be chosen. 4 If he argues that under the hereditary system he, and not Claudius, should rule, he becomes a law-breaker like his uncle.
But under the hereditary system Hamlet is absolutely sure of his crown. He is more nearly certain of it than he was
under his father. That is why he is baffled in his struggle with Claudius, and that is why the robbery argument is
too thin for serious use. Claudius is like a glassy wall up which Hamlet struggles to climb without footing.
(4) Claudius is at fault in his marriage with Gertrude
in that (a) he seduced the queen; (b) he hurried her into
marriage; (c) he committed incest with her. Hamlet brings
more cogent charges against his uncle. Claudius, he says,
has "whored" his mother, married her precipitately, and
lives in incest with her.
It is obvious that much will depend upon the sincerity of the attachment between Gertrude and Claudius. If their
love has in it something fine and good, it will prove like all great passions to have extenuation in it, or at any rate, the
spectator will be more ready to pity than to condemn. If, as Hamlet claims, their attachment is on the one hand a
low, dirty intrigue, and on the other, a sensual sty, we may as well give up the case as hopeless.
Professor Kittredge would have us believe that we are dealing with a case of guilty passion. The tragedy of the
house of Hamlet springs, he says, out of the fatal love of Gertrude and Claudius. It is for her that Claudius has
murdered his brother. It is she and not the crown he has aimed at, and Professor Kittredge points for proof to the
ascending climax in Claudius' soliloquy:
"those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen."
(III, iii, 54-55)
If we did not know how the marriage came about, we
should agree, I think, that Gertrude and Claudius (except
to Hamlet) are, for the greater part of the play, the picture
of a devoted and self-respecting couple. The genuine courtesy of the king's public references to his wife, the deference
of each to the other, notable in their first interview with
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz (II, ii), the concern of the
queen in the play scene:
"How fares my lord?"
(III, ii, 261)
a prelude to her plaintive
"O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!"
(Ill, iv, 156)
and above all the way the two cling to each other amid their
sea of troubles, from the perplexity of the king's
"0 Gertrude, Gertrude,"
(IV, V, 74)
to the queen's anxious attempt to save her husband from
"But not by him!"—
(IV, V, 125)
all these are unmistakable, and are so many direct denials
to Hamlet's furious and unseemly abuse. And this passion
seems at one time to rise to the height of great pathos when,
in the last scene, the helpless king cries out with the simplicity of all high tragedy:
"It is the poison'd cup; it is too late."
(V, ii, 284)
At any rate the relation between the two is not the nasty
affair of too much of Hamlet's thinking — as, indeed, it
would be superfluous to point out, were we not all hypnotized by the modern versions of the play.
But I do not think we can adopt the Kittredge explanation unreservedly. Human motives are very mixed, and
life, as George Moore says, never comes twice in the same
way. And it seems to me that while the sincerity and depth
of the queen's attachment to Claudius is indubitable, surviving as it does the most fearful sorrows to sink at last,
strangely enough, in a storm of accident and revelation in which Gertrude alone never finds out the truth, 5 the attachment of Claudius to Gertrude is another matter. I should say that his love has sincerity, but no depth.
in the lines to which Professor Kittredge refers, though
they may, indeed, rise to a climax on "queen" — a debatable
point — Claudius yet enumerates the effects of the murder
entirely in their political aspects:
"My crown, mine own ambition and my queen,"
that is, my office, my desire of attaining (or retaining) it,
and my securest hold upon that office. And after Claudius
has uttered the tragic cry I have quoted; after he knows the
queen is surely dying, he yet watches the duel!
"I do not think't,"
(V, ii, 286)
he says in answer to Laertes' boast, and when Hamlet
wounds Laertes, he directs the attendants to
"Part them; they are incensed."
(V, ii, 294)
Seven lines after "the Queen falls," he is cool-witted enough
to try to conceal what has happened:
"She swounds to see them bleed."
(V, ii, 299)
And when Hamlet has stabbed him, his last thought is of
his own life:
"0, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt."
(V, 11, 316)
His whole interest is in the outcome of the plot, not in Gertrude. In contrast to the single-hearted devotion of the
queen, is this tragic passion?
When Antony is (falsely) informed of Cleopatra's death,
he drops all earthly concerns:
"Unarm, Eros, the long day's task is done,
And we must sleep . . .
I will o'ertake thee, Cleopatra, and
Weep for my pardon."
When Othello has, like Claudius, killed the thing he loved,
"I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee; no way but this.
Killing myself to die upon a kiss."
When Romeo sees Juliet dead:
"O, true apothecary;
Thy drugs are quick. — Thus with a kiss I die."
Such a man as Macbeth can say upon the news of his wife's
"I 'gin to be a-weary of the sun,
And wish the estate o' the world were now undone."
Even Troilus has a far-off glimmer of this magic:
"0 Cressid! O false Cressid! false, false, false!
Let all untruths stand by thy stained name,
And they seem glorious."
The noise and clamor of the world's affairs sound as loudly
in all these plays, and the end of all but one is as rapid
as that of Hamlet, but in each case there is no doubt that
we are dealing with tragic passion, whereas Claudius utters
no such cry. His thought is of himself and of his throne.
The truth to nature and the poignancy of
"It is the poison'd cup; it is too late"
arise, indeed, from the very fact that a supremely skillful
plotter here is foiled. He watches the duel that may yet
leave him secure upon his throne. He could never understand Antony:
"Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is, to do thus', when such a mutual pair.
And such a twain can do't."
Instead of the world well lost, his eye is fixed upon Denmark:
"0, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt."
What are we to make of him? Is it but another proof that
Claudius is a conscienceless villain? Has Hamlet's "good
mother" wasted her soul's affection on a scoundrel and a
cad? Have the affections of the court been fixed upon a
contemptible and petty desperado? Is Hamlet, after all,
right, and is every one else (including Professor Kittredge)
mad? I do not think so.
The passion of Gertrude is, indeed, tragic passion — intense, fatal, overwhelming; but the same is not true of Claudius. Neither does his apparent unconcern at the queen's
death mean that he is a mere scoundrel. Claudius gives
Gertrude all that he can. He has for her a genuine affection. It is even love. But it is not passion; and in him
"the quick, unreasoning heart" is strictly subordinated to
"the cool and reasoning brain." There are degrees in affection; Cupid but claps some on the shoulder; and men have
died, as that wise young woman, Rosalind, says, from time
to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love. Claudius loves Gertrude, but only as his nature permits him,
and he is incapable of feeling a grand passion.
The motives for the marriage are mixed — passion on Gertrude's part, affection on the part of Claudius, and not a
little policy. Their love was guilty in its beginning, and it
has led to crime: to adultery before old Hamlet's death,
and to the murder of old Hamlet. In the first instance
both are clearly guilty, though Gertrude's adoration for
Claudius tends to humanize her and, in dramatic terms, to
make her "sympathetic."
In the second count Claudius
alone is guilty. Gertrude's passion is her tragic fault; but
the murder of his brother is the tragic fault of Claudius,
and back of the love-affair, back of the murder, was ambition. They are not, it is clear, fellow-conspirators like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; they are not light-o'-loves likes Cressida and Troilus; they are not splendid lovers like
Cleopatra and Antony.
Because the love of Gertrude for Claudius is in Hamlet
the beginning of evil, people jump, it is true, to the conclusion that Gertrude, in addition to abandoning her first husband, was accessory to his murder. This conviction is strengthened by the play-scene as that is usually staged;
for modern versions gratuitously make the Player-Queen beckon Lucianus, the poisoner, to his task. There is absolutely no justification in Shakespeare for the pantomime thus enacted. The text is clear. The Player-Queen goes
"And never come mischance between us twain!"
(III, ii, 223)
Lucianus enters alone, speaks, but makes no reference to the
Player-Queen, and poisons the Player-King. At this point
the play is interrupted but the dumb-show tells all; we read
"The Queen returns; finds the King dead, and
makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some
two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead body is carried away. The
Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts; she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts
Obviously there is not the slightest excuse for making the
Player-Queen a murderess, but we are so occupied with
making Claudius and Gertrude monsters of wickedness
that we change the very image which Hamlet (and Shakespeare) wrought! For if Hamlet believes that his mother
is a murderess, and if he has "doctored" The Murder of
Gonzago so that it shall picture the assassination of Hamlet
as accurately as possible, he has made a curious botch of it;
and if he has merely chosen that play as coming near to the
assassination, without actually picturing the deed in all its
circumstances, he has been clumsy, to say the least. We
must suppose that The Murder of Gonzago faithfully relates
the deed as it was done; else the king can not be frightened
with false fire.
There is not a scintilla of evidence to show that Gertrude
is a murderess. The ghost does not make such a charge.
His complaint, so far as Gertrude is concerned, is that her
affections have turned to so poor a thing as Claudius. Nor
does Hamlet make the charge. He says, it is true, at the
opening of the closet scene,
"A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, arid marry with his brother,"
(III, iv, 28-29)
but Gertrude's astonishment is so genuine and unforced
that the prince never reverts to this topic, despite the fact
that he is desperately in need of the evidence he might wring
from the frightened woman, — if he did not clearly perceive
that there is no evidence to wring. Not only is Gertrude
no murderess; there is not a scintilla of evidence to show
that she knows that old Hamlet was murdered, much less
that Claudius killed him. Royal conspirators like Macbeth
and Lady Macbeth continually turn back to their common
crimes as cardinal points in their policy, but the only point
to which Gertrude and Claudius together revert is their
love-relationship. They never speak of their mutual crime
— meaning the murder — for the sufficient reason that the
guilt of that murder is sole and singular. If Shakespeare
meant to paint another pair of royal assassins, he has been
singularly clumsy about it.
In fine, the reason for the ghost's warning,
"howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven,"
(I, V, 84-86)
is that Hamlet may not, that the audience may not, jump
to the conclusion that Gertrude is an accomplice in the
killing. The ghost's language indicates, so to speak, the
theological nature of her fault; it is a sin rather than a
crime ; the sin of adultery, not the crime of murder. This
is what Gertrude acknowledges it to be:
"To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is" 6
(IV, V, 17)
she says, for her fault is against the ecclesiastical, more
strongly than against the civil, code. Hence she is to be
left "to heaven" and to
"those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her,"
(I, V, 87-88)
whereas Claudius, being of the world, is to be punished of
"Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,"
(I, V, 25)
says the ghost, and Hamlet, seeing his uncle at prayer,
reasons not improperly:
". . . Am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
When he is . . .
... about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him up, that his heels may kick at heaven
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes,"
(III, iii, 84-95)
whereas, ten minutes later, he can tell his mother:
"Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past, avoid what is to come."
(III, iv, 149-150)
The charge that Claudius "whored" Hamlet's mother is
true only in the sense of guilty love, not in the sense that
he has also made of her a criminal. This love is deeper
on Gertrude's part than on that of Claudius, and has accordingly the extenuation of great passion, as Hamlet feels
"That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat.
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery.
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight.
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; and the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature."
(III, iv, 161-168)
Hamlet also complains of the haste of his mother's marriage. Even before he knows of the murder, his sense of
propriety has been deeply wounded:
"within a month;
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing of her galled eyes,
(I, ii, 153-156)
and he sadly — if vaguely — concludes,
"It is not, nor it cannot come to good."
(I, ii, 158)
If Claudius is the shrewd and crafty plotter that, on the lowest plane, he seems to be, it looks as if here he had
failed. Why should he arouse Hamlet's suspicions when
a little delay would serve to allay them? One can not but
be struck by the apparent foolhardiness of the king's behavior. He seems with brazen effrontery to court destruction and invite scandal, as Gertrude tells us:
"I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage."
(II, ii, 56-57)
Even the taciturn Horatio makes one of his few comments
on public affairs by dryly observing of the marriage and the
"Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon."
(I, ii, 79)
An amateur in conspiracy would postpone the wedding at least until a decent interval had elapsed and murmur had died down.
That is precisely what an amateur would do, and precisely
why Claudius does not do it. For it is to be remarked that
all the comment about the hasty marriage comes at the beginning of the play. Of all the pretexts Hamlet might find
for quarreling with his uncle, the hasty marriage, implying
as it does bad faith at the best and treachery at the worst,
would seem to be the most plausible; Gertrude fears gossip
about it; and yet Hamlet not only does not use it, but when,
at the conclusion of the piece, he summarizes for Horatio
his grievances against his uncle, the theme of the hasty
marriage is slurred over in his catalog!
"Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon —
He that hath kill'd my king, and whored my mother;
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes;
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage — -is't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm?"
(V, ii, 62-68)
What are we to make of the theory that Claudius is playing
into Hamlet's hands when we see that Hamlet fails to employ the apparent advantage which has been given him?
What, indeed, except that Claudius is again too shrewd for
his nephew? Hamlet's mouth is shut.
Claudius foresees every contingency except supernatural
interference. He, and he alone, has done the murder. No
one suspects him, not even Gertrude. This secret is safe.
But the secret of the love affair can not be safe. Two are
involved; the going and comings of the lovers obviously can
not be concealed, or at best, can be concealed for a short
time only, after which — scandal. What is he to do?
Let us suppose that Claudius postpones the marriage to a time that will seem proper and decent — two months, six
months, a year. Criticism will be stopped, it is true, but
gossip will begin. Gertrude adores him. He can not well
stay away from her. Her attitude will cause comment.
She will be, besides, in torments of conscience which he can
not control. His own freedom of action will be curtailed.
Does any one doubt that in this event the names of the
present king, and the late queen of Denmark will be in
everybody's mouth; that suspicion will rise into certainty;
that certainty will become curious and turn back to the
origin of this public love affair; that forgotten incidents
will be revived and imaginary incidents, invented, until
Hamlet, far from lacking cause for rebellion will be hard
put to it to find a pretext for quiescence, and Denmark, sore
pressed by her enemies, will be embarrassed at home by
division among her rulers, and by a hideous and ugly scan-
Does anyone doubt that this will follow the postponement of the marriage as surely as the night the day?
Has not young Hamlet, in the actual situation, become suspicious in less than a month? (I, ii) Can Claudius expect
that Gertrude will dissemble — Gertrude, who hung on old
"As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on,"
(I, ii, 144-145)
who was next
"Like Niobe. all tears"
(I, ii, 149)
(and Hamlet never questions the sincerity of his mother's
emotions, wondering merely at their frank and constant
change — "Frailty, thy name is woman"), and who conceals
matters so poorly that the young prince employs fifteen lines
of blank verse and sarcasm to impress upon her the elementary necessity of secrecy so far as he is concerned — how
long could Gertrude act a part with her lover near her, and
both under the great white light that beats upon a throne?
The king takes the better and the wiser course. If the
marriage be promptly concluded, scandal is stopped. Gossip may toy awhile (as it does) with the theme, but the
thing done, all mouths are sealed. When there is no living
impediment to such a marriage, people do not inquire too
curiously into the past of the couple. And if they do inquire; if they discover that in its origins the passion of
Gertrude for Claudius, was adulterous — what then? Who
now can complain? Who is injured? Old Hamlet is dead.
The lovers have taken the one recognized step for legitimizing their affection. Young Hamlet, by this expeditious
marriage, is neatly placed in the predicament of condemning
the desire of guilty lovers to wash away their guilt and regularize their union!
We have forgotten under the impact of such modern plays
as Hindle Wakes and The Eldest Son how completely the
convention was established in Elizabethan times and throughout dramatic history until our own day, that marriage is
the sufficient answer to the accusation of immorality in sexual matters; or rather, if we do not forget this fact (witness the movies), we do not appreciate the force with which
it stopped discussion in Shakespeare's age.
At the conclusion of Measure for Measure, for instance, the despicable
Claudio is thought to be sufficiently rehabilitated in the eyes
of the world (and the audience) when the duke commands
him to take Mariana home "and marry her instantly." As
for Lucio in the same play,
"Proclaim it, provost, round about the city —
If any woman [has been] wrong'd by this lewd fellow,
... let her appear
And he shall marry her; the nuptial finish'd,
Let him be whipp'd and hang'd."
But everybody is satisfied when, upon protest, the duke
"Upon mine honour, thou shalt marry her.
. . . and therewithal
Remit thy other forfeits."
The conclusion of All's Well That Ends Well is stuffed with
similar sentiments. The Hero-plot of Much Ado About
Nothing turns on an equally significant interpretation of
marriage and sexual guilt. Beaumont and Fletcher are full
of it. So are others, notably Heywood.
adopts the most common stage device in the world to make
his lovers in this play seem wholly virtuous; increasing
thereby the breathlessness of the plot and Hamlet's perplexity; and it is no wonder, in view of the promptness with
which Claudius avails himself of this recognized and undebatable device for exhibiting, as it were, repentance, and
making reparation to the woman in the case (supposing
him ever to be charged with guilt in this love affair) — it
is no wonder that Hamlet, helpless before the fact of the
marriage and the general acquiescence in it, cries out:
"The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil ; . . .
. . . yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."
(II, ii, 594-601)
Other considerations being for the moment waived, what
can the most rigid casuist desire that Claudius and Gertrude do not?
There is, however, another respect which makes an immediate marriage not only morally desirable, but practically
expedient. This is clearly the international situation. Upon the death of the late king and the accession of Claudius, a
man unknown outside of Denmark, the nations of the north have sought immediately to test the mettle of the new ruler,
placing Denmark in great peril. If Claudius does not marry Gertrude, there are obviously three aspirants to the Danish
crown: Claudius, who has seized the power; Gertrude, the widow of the last king; and Hamlet, who considers that he
is a candidate for the election. Be they ever so amicable at the start, a quarrel must result.
Three mutually hostile
parties will form in the court and the nation. Foreign
peoples will have a golden opportunity to play one faction
against the other, or to seize the power as Fortinbras actually does — when, between two of these parties, Claudius
and Hamlet, the crown comes tumbling into his lap. What
is politically expedient? What is the best political morality? Is it not a prompt union of the potential rivals and
a common front against the enemy? Fortunately two of the three are already on terms of intimacy, and Claudius
promptly — and wisely — marries the widow of the last king,
at the same time seeking to attach the third party to him
by public proclamation: Hamlet is to be his heir.
this solution before the court, or at least that part of it
which pertains to Gertrude, he receives their hearty support; and takes occasion at the first public ceremony since
the funeral, tactfully to announce the event, to deprecate
the seeming slight to his brother's memory, and to indicate
the cause for haste: the state, "by our late dear brother's
death" must not become "disjoint and out of frame" as
Fortinbras fondly believes it will. 7
Under this count, wherein is Claudius guilty? It is useless to argue that a high and fine nature in Claudius's place
would have — what shall we say? Confessed, and gone into a monastery? Denmark would have gone to ruin. It is
useless to argue that a high and fine nature, in Gertrude's place, would have renounced her love and gone on mourning
for a man she cared nothing about. That is to condemn her to life-long hypocrisy. The world is not run by motives
that are ten feet high. The high and fine thing is a prompt
marriage, whereby Denmark is saved and Gertrude becomes, as the phrase goes, an honest woman; and then a long
penitence and reform — such contrition as we see beginning
to work in both before the play ends.
Human motives are
tangled; but the life of a ruler is not his own, as Shakespeare's histories and tragedies so clearly show, and though
Claudius is guilty enough in other ways, it takes an absolutist of the type of Hamlet to find a distinct moral wrong
in the fact that Claudius married Gertrude a month after the funeral. The act, at the most, is questionable; it is,
however, defensible, and from two or three points of view, it is absolutely to be justified.
We might wish that Gertrude did not love Claudius, but
she does. We might wish (with Hamlet) that she loved
her husband, but she does not. We might wish (with the
casuist) that she truly mourned for him, but she does not,
and there is no way to compel her. We might even wish
that she renounce the world, but none of Shakespeare's
women, though occasionally they talk of so doing, are of
this type. Shakespeare knew that renunciation is usually
to dodge the human problem, not to struggle with it, and
in the present instance especially, to renounce the world
would be to equivocate and fail. Gertrude, like Claudius,
is a ruler, and her life is not all her own. 8
Hamlet also charges that the marriage is incestuous.
Since the contracting parties are not blood relations, this
objection seems to many of us strange, and we do not know
why Hamlet thus characterizes the union until we remember
that the theological law of Shakespeare's day, despite Henry
VIII and the Reformation, was still that of the Roman
Catholic church. From the theological point of view the
marriage comes within the forbidden unions, and is therefore incestuous. It is pertinent to secure the opinion of the
"Three . . . impediments," says Simon Augustine
Blackmore, S. J., 9 "directly affected Claudius and in fact
any one of them sufficed to invalidate his attempted (sic)
marriage with the Queen. The first was the law that prohibited one from marrying his deceased brother's wife without a dispensation." 10 "The second concerned the criminal
seduction of a consort on the promise of marriage after the
death of the husband. . . The third impediment was a
law which prohibited and nullified the marriage of the man
who murdered the husband of his accomplice in adultery in
order to marry her."
From these premises Father Blackmore argues that "the marriage of Claudius was only putative or supposed, and therefore null and void, and this fact he [Shakespeare] would impress upon our minds by frequent repetitions." 11
Unfortunately the lines which Father Blackmore cites
do not prove what he wants them to prove; 12 they merely
indicate Hamlet's desire that his mother shall cease to have
relations with Claudius, and Gertrude's confession of a
guilty conscience. Far from repeating that the marriage
is "only putative or supposed" Shakespeare at no time says
that the marriage was only ''supposed." Claudius announces the completed marriage in open court. Hamlet
thinks of it as legal:
"the funeral baked-meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!"
(I, ii, 180-183)
Does Father Blackmore suppose that they had a wedding
banquet without any wedding? The ghost, in saying
"Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest,"
does not imply anything except disgust with the acts of
Claudius and Gertrude; does not imply, in short, that the
wedding was "supposed." And weak as the church in Denmark is represented to be, 13 we can not imagine that the
king and queen of Denmark are living together without a
wedding ceremony having been performed. There would
have been instant reproof from the church; the stubborn
priest can say at Ophelia's grave:
"No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls,"
(V, i, 229-232)
against the wishes of the court and the royal command,
and he would have been equally zealous to prevent the open
scandal Father Blackmore's statement presupposes. Royal
marriages are not made in the dark, nor was this; a ceremony that satisfied the court and the participants, a ceremony that seemed legal, a ceremony, indeed, that must have
satisfied the officiating minister, was performed; a priest
officiated at it; and Hamlet is helpless. The marriage was
not "attempted"; it was completed to the satisfaction of
every one concerned.
Unfortunately for this critic also, there is no ground for
supposing that the second law he quotes can operate in this
case: that concerning "the criminal seduction of a consort
on the promise of marriage after the death of her husband."
Since Gertrude did not know of the murder (on Father
Blackmore's own showing), she could not have been seduced "on the promise of marriage after the death of her
husband" because she did not know when her husband was
going to die. For all she knew old Hamlet might live to be
a hundred. Not even a very stupid person could be seduced by a promise of this sort.
The case rests, then, upon the first and third of the ecclesiastical prohibitions cited by the reverend father. Let
us consider that forbidding "incest." Once again the attentive reader must be struck by the fact that Hamlet is
the only one who objects; and that he does not object to anybody but himself until some months after the ceremony!
Even then he does not tell Horatio that the marriage was
incestuous; he says merely that the king has "whored" —
i. e., debauched — his mother. The play scene, with its close
parallel to the story of Gertrude and Claudius, marriage and
all, is staged in order that Horatio may with the very comment of his soul observe the uncle and discover if his occulted guilt does not unkennel itself in one speech — concerning what?
"One scene [that] comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death."
(III, ii, 74-75)
There is no mention of incest here! And Hamlet does not
tell his mother she has committed incest — he tells her that
she is a spiritual traitor to his father. The sole time that
Hamlet mentions incest to anyone in the play is when he
stabs his uncle:
"Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion.".
(V, ii, 317-318)
Now a more powerful, a more crushing charge, than the charge of incest can hardly be imagined, but Hamlet does
not make such a charge; like so many of his arguments, it will not work; others do not — it is clear — view the marriage with abhorrence for the reason that Hamlet, and Father Blackmore, advance. 14
The church itself has, by its representative, performed
the ceremony. This is plain. Claudius, far from palliating the charge of incest, publicly announces the relation of
Gertrude to his brother and himself:
"... our sometime sister, now our queen,
Have we. . .
Taken to wife."
(I, ii, 8-14)
This is strange language for a marriage that is only putative or supposed. Furthermore, nobody objects. The court
could see nothing improper in the proceeding; sanctioned it,
indeed, without a dissenting voice.
The church — strong enough to prevent the Christian burial of Ophelia — makes
no move to annul the marriage, once it has been performed,
though one would suppose that a clever man like Hamlet
might set in motion the enginery of that church to help him
toward his end. And Hamlet does not tell his mother to
dissolve the marriage — he asks her to abstain from his
uncle's bed; but she remains, nonetheless, the legal wife of
Claudius. In short, there is a difficulty here that Father
Blackmore does not meet.
In this respect it is clear that the theological law is but
one point of view. Hamlet is a product of the Renaissance.
It was written for the Globe Theatre, and for an audience
which viewed Catholic Spain with abhorrence, remembered
the reign of Bloody Mary, and approved of the beheading
of Catholic Mary Stuart.
As a matter of practical dramaturgy Shakespeare could not expect to impress his audience
with the horror of the marriage by the employment of a weapon of Catholic theology. Hamlet, moreover, is a scholar,
a philosopher, and a sceptic, who doubts the ghost he has seen, doubts the purgatory the ghost comes from, doubts
whether the after life be the Catholic heaven or
"something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns," 15
(III, i, 78-80)
until his perplexity
"puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of."
(III, i, 80-82)
Hamlet, in fine, is no Catholic to whom such a marriage
would be abhorrent merely because it was "theological incest." 16
We must conclude, in fine, that the incest prohibition did not seem to Hamlet or the court or the audience
of that time, an ultimate test of moral truth, but represented
a conflict of standards — a conflict peculiarly characteristic
of a dramatic product of the English Renaissance and of a
country which had had its Henry VIII. It is Hamlet who
utters the pregnant line: "there's nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so." 17
The king, says Father Blackmore, is "theoretically a Catholic." 18 The same writer characterizes the king's soliloquy as "terribly in earnest and sincere," "the heart-searching of a guilty soul that exhibits more clearly in the
concrete than would an abstract treatise, all the elements
of the Catholic doctrine of repentance. . . . when attempting to burst asunder the captive bonds that hold him
enslaved in sin." 19
Yet this king who searches his heart,
who "exhibits all the elements of the Catholic doctrine of
repentance" does not even think of the sin of incest he has
committed, than which not even murder is more black and
damnable! His thought is entirely upon the assassination
and its effects — crown, ambition, queen — but it does not
occur to him when he searches his heart, that his marriage
is an incestuous one. If he considered it such, it would be
difficult not to think that his heart would be as chilled by the
thought of so awful a crime.
There is still another factor which must be taken into
account. Beyond a certain point in tragedy, horror may not go. Now there are horrors enough in Hamlet without
the addition of incest. Adultery and assassination usher it
in, a ghost begins it, there are one case of real insanity and
one of supposed insanity, we have one case of suicide, one of
attempted assassination, one of riot and attempted assassination, two instances of avowed revenge, two murders off
stage, and five deaths on the stage, four of which occur with
in five minutes of one another, and the whole ends with the
conquest of the country by a foreign army.
Even for an
Elizabethan play this is a good deal. To suppose that
Shakespeare intended to add to this accumulation of violence, horror's crown of horror - incest — is to suppose him
lacking in sound dramatic sense. What, then, is our way
out of the difficulty?
We may suppose simply that the church sanctioned the
marriage. Father Blackmore states that canon law "prohibited one from marrying his deceased brother's wife
without a dispensation." Obviously, even in the eyes of the
church, this sort of incest is not absolute: dispensations can
be obtained. And since no one — not even Hamlet — questions the legality of the marriage, since a ceremony was
performed and a priest must have performed it, we may,
if we like, assume that Claudius secured a dispensation.
But I think it is simpler to assume that the whole matter
seemed to Shakespeare of minor importance. He was not writing a play that turned on Catholic theology. The question of whether the marriage violates canon law was not his dramatic problem. 20
Hence, he does not indicate whether
a dispensation was obtained or not, simply because that
question seemed to him to possess little consequence, one
way or the other. And much of the language that he gives
to Hamlet makes quite as good sense if we remember that
"incestuous" 21 was used in Elizabethan times, to designate
not only incest, but adultery, or loosely, all violations of sexual ethics.
Accordingly, if we sum up our examination of
the problem, we must conclude, I believe, that the question
of whether the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius was incestuous seemed to all concerned — to Shakespeare and his
audience, to the court, to Claudius himself, to Gertrude,
even to Hamlet — either a matter of little moment or a
purely technical violation of church law, which Hamlet
might or might not use in his denunciation of Claudius as
he found it expedient to do so.
For Father Blackmore advances a third and more substantial reason for our dislike of the marriage in Hamlet.
Canon law, he says, prohibits and nullifies the marriage of
a man who murdered the husband of his accomplice in order
to marry her. The author very properly qualifies his language by admitting that this impediment was unknown to
the queen. Hence, the guilt of the act is not hers, but
Claudius', and his guilt arises, not from the marriage but
from the murder that is the cause of the marriage. We
come back, in other words, to our original position, that the
murder of his brother is Claudius' tragic fault. We sympathize with Hamlet, we turn from the guilty couple, because theology and universal moral judgment here coincide;
we feel that it is wrong for a man to murder his mistress'
And when we have admitted this, we observe that the
dramatic problem of the play increases in interest. For
Gertrude, like Oedipus, in this respect is an unwitting offender. She is guilty of adultery, but she believes that she
has legitimized her passion by the marriage with Claudius,
and at the same time the audience knows what she does not
know: that Claudius is a murderer and that the marriage
is unholy. Our pity goes out to her. And by a fine and
subtle piece of work on Shakespeare's part, she never learns,
so to speak, why it is that we condemn her.
learns that Claudius has killed her first husband. And if
we examine the question of why Shakespeare never lets her
learn this fact, we see at once the reason : she is, after all,
a subordinate character; he has time, following Hamlet's
denunciation of her treason to his father's memory, to paint
her sense of guilt, but in the rush of the play, he could not
have time to paint the horror that would come over her,
did she learn that her husband was the guiltiest man in
Denmark. From her point of view he has done no evil;
he is her lover, and she worships him; he has not, like herself, betrayed the trust of marriage. Did she learn that
her soul's idol was an assassin, and an assassin of her husband, her sense of guilt, her horror, her remorse, would
as it were, stop the play and usurp the center of the action
at the very time when all must be concentrated upon Hamlet. And did she believe in addition that the marriage was
incestuous, her tragic situation would be unbearable.
Accordingly, Shakespeare confines her guilt to the guilt of the
love affair, and stresses the guilt of Claudius as being the
guilt of murder.
Claudius has murdered his brother, his mistress' husband. That is the sole dramatic reason why the marriage
is universally to be condemned. The offense can not be
palliated, can not be extenuated. It is great, it is criminal.
But Claudius differs from Macbeth. He is strong enough
to keep the secret to himself. In the utmost torture of
his soul he does not, like his Scotch brother, torment his
wife with his remorse. Policy, perhaps; even cowardice;
yet what would he gain by confessing all to Gertrude?
After his fashion he loves her, and he is just enough not to
add to her own sense of guilt by informing her that she has
married a fratricide. The problem is his, and he keeps it.
In this respect Hamlet and the ghost approve his judgment,
for both feel it unnecessary and unfair to drag Gertrude
into the guilt of the assassination.
For Hamlet is not, after all, a theological problem, but a
problem in the ethics of conduct. Moral judgments tend
to be negative and barren of results. The murder was
wrong in triple sense, but it is done, and being done, what is
Claudius to do? It is easy to say, let him confess, let him
refrain from marrying the queen.
If he confesses, Denmark will go to pieces. If he refrains from marrying the
queen, he leaves Gertrude in a fearful situation, and adds
to her burden that which she has no business to bear. And
last and most curious of all, there is no tribunal to which
he can appeal. As king, he is the fountainhead of justice
in the state. He can not appeal to the church, which is at
once a negligible factor at Elsinore, and at cross purposes
with itself: it compromises on the question of the marriage,
it compromises in the funeral of Ophelia. He can not appeal to his conscience:
"O what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder?
That can not be. . ."
Of all Shakespeare's characters is there any in so fearful
a situation as he?
(5) Claudius is a murderer who has (a) killed his
brother and and (b) attempted the assassination of Hamlet.
We are brought at length to the great problem of Claudius'
tragic guilt. Of Hamlet's five charges, the first and second
are not true; the third is open to argument; the fourth is
true only in a limited degree ; and the fifth remains. Claudius has murdered his king. Worse than that, this king
was his paramour's husband. Worse than that, it was fratricide. Furthermore, the murder was deliberate, cold-
blooded and ingenious.
Nothing can alter, nothing can
change it. From this one initial crime springs all the
guilt and sorrow of the play, a tale of
"carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
Fall'n on the inventors' heads."
(V, ii, 373-377)
That Claudius is neither a fool nor a mere villain must
by this time be clear. Why, then, did he kill his brother?
Because he desired to become king. But why did he desire
to become king? Shakespeare does not answer this question because to do so would complicate an already complicated play. We may surmise what we please. Envy, selfishness, ambition — all the complex motives of a man who
trusts more to his head than to his heart, enter into the
answer; and we must never forget that in executing the
murder, Claudius was as cool, as crafty, and, as cunning as
any Italian villain.
We may surmise what we please. What
sustained him in his hours of watching Hamlet for an opportunity to do the deed? Was it mere envy? Was it not
rather the itch of competency to seize the office in which Claudius felt his extraordinary powers would have their
widest play? As between the bluff Hamlet and the Italianate Claudius did he feel that he, Claudius, was the man
born to be king? However these things may be, it is clear
that Claudius, lacking as he is in passion, did not perform
the murder out of personal envy alone, but rather out of a
complex of motives, in which a feeling of competency, a
conviction of the worth of his own powers, played no small
And so, combining desire and policy, Claudius seduces
Gertrude and murders Hamlet. Having seduced the queen
he comes, in his fashion, to love her. Having murdered his
brother, he comes to repent. He begins his new life by
striving to wipe out all memory of the deed; he does not
speak of it even to himself. He comes to the throne amid
general approbation, and promptly and skillfully seizes the
reins of government. There is no move which a wise ruler
should make that he does not make. His public character
awakens respect, his private life is admirable. No one
knows of his crime. He resolves to do penance for it by a
life devoted to wise and good actions — he will be a sagacious
ruler, a devoted husband, a careful and considerate father.
Then there crosses his path the one man he has striven
to conciliate. For reasons inexplicable to Claudius this
man exhibits a settled hostility to the king. It is the son
of the man he has murdered. Like Macbeth before Macduff, Claudius does not desire more of that blood upon his
hands. His conscience is beginning to gnaw at him; he
even pictures that he can make reparation to the son for the
wrong done the father: he will give to Hamlet the crown
he took from the murdered man, and so he resolves to make
of Hamlet a competent and careful king.
But Hamlet suddenly exhibits a strange and iron resolve, a bitter determination to treat Claudius as an enemy. The king endeavors to search out the springs of this determination, and fails:
it is not ambition, it is not love, it is not any public expression of hostility to the marriage, for Hamlet makes none.
For the present no other possibility occurs to him.
When the king sets spies on Hamlet, we jump to the conclusion that he is a mean, treacherous villain. But is he
necessarily one? He could have set assassins in their stead.
Macbeth, who also kills a king, murders Banquo on a pretext more shadowy than Hamlet's "madness" — a riddle justifies the deed. lago stabs Roderigo with the same calmness and lack of motive with which he misleads Othello.
The path of Richard is a path of blood. The bastard Edmund forges letters and engineers assassinations like a
super-butcher. Clearly Claudius is none of these.
is the king's enemy, but Claudius does not imitate the other
Shakespearian villains; the life of Hamlet is precious to
Gertrude, to the state, to the future — and he forbears to
strike. It is not, as with Brutus, weakness of will. It is not,
as with Antony, the vacillation of passion. It is not, as with
Macbeth, sheer indecision. At the time he reaches his crucial
decision concerning Hamlet, his sagacity, his foresight,
his promptness in reaching conclusions were never better.
Clearly, his decision is a deliberate one. Why does not
Claudius contrive Hamlet's assassination? It is because
Hamlet is the incarnation of that reparation which he dare
not publicly make.
Then suddenly this inveterate enemy springs a trap — the play. Claudius at last learns that Hamlet knows his
secret — how or why he can not discover. Does he, like the
great Shakespearian villains, immediately scheme for Hamlet's death? Instead, his conscience flares up; he retires
from the hall "marvellous distempered" — with choler, says
Guildenstern, excitedly seeking words in the confusion, but
we see in a moment what species of choler this was. Not
yet does he resolve to kill his enemy; he will remove him to
England. Then we see him struggling with the burden of
"0, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent.
And like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin.
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself wit?i brother's blood.
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offense?
And what's in prayer but this twofold force.
To be forestalled ere we come to fall.
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder.
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice.
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell'd
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engaged! Help, angels! make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees, and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well."
(III, iii, 36-72)
For concentrated torment there is nothing like this in all
Shakespeare, save the last of Othello. The man of strong
will is in a blind alley wherein his will can not help him:
he who has affirmed the world must now affirm the spirit,
and can not. So terrible is his anguish, so sincere his struggle that his inveterate enemy, coming upon him at so opportune a moment, stays his hand:
"O, this is hire and salary, not revenge."
(III, iii, 79)
There is for Claudius no loophole, no hope of peace:
"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go."
(II, iii, 97-98)
In proportion as the struggle with Hamlet grows more and
more deadly, the struggle of the king with himself increases
in bitterness. Claudius learns from Gertrude that he has
been the indirect cause of the death of one of his dearest
"O heavy deed!
It had been so with us, had we been there:
His liberty is full of threats to all.
To you yourself, to us, to everyone."
(IV, i, 12-15)
And what is the king's half-sincere conclusion?
"Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer'd?
It will be laid to us, whose providence
Should have kept short, restrained and out of haunt,
This mad young man: but so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit.
But, like the owner of a foul disease,
To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of life."
(IV, i, 16-23)
His duty as an individual is at direct odds with his duty as
king. And he can not tell Gertrude the truth, he must play
the hypocrite even with her: it is part of his punishment.
In the extremity of this strange duel in the dark he has forgotten that he does not stand a single man; he is the state;
all depends upon him; and yet the affection of the woman
who worships him is bound up with the very life of his inveterate enemy. He has come to the parting of the ways.
Where shall he turn? What shall he do? His opponent forces him to more and more fearful measures. How far
has he departed from the path he originally marked out for
himself! He must decide on action; against his very will
he must decide. He has no illusions as to what he is doing:
"diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all."
(IV, iii, 9-11)
He makes his great decision, and it is wrong. He decides
that Hamlet must die. It is the second great crisis of his
life, but unlike the first, this is not wholly of his choosing.
It is the old story of the ineluctibility of evil:
"Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne'er begun."
(IV, iii, 68)
He can not perform the penance he had planned. When
Hamlet is at length out of the country, the king accordingly
looks around him. All that he had dreamed on is quite,
"0 Gertrude, Gertrude,
When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions! First, her father slain:
Next, your son gone: and he most violent author
Of his own just remove: the people muddied,
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers,
For good Polonius' death; and we have done but greenly
In hugger-mugger to inter him; poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgement,"
(IV, V, 74-82)
and the country, under the leadership of Laertes, is rushing
to rebellion. In the accents of despair he concludes:
"O my dear Gertrude, this,
Like to a murdering-piece, in many places
Gives me superfluous death,"
(IV, V, 91-93)
and he concludes that his punishment is too great for his
crime. It is his privilege to strike back.
He quells the riot, and wins Laertes to him, and the victory gives him courage. He tells Laertes:
"you must not think
That we are made of stuff so flat and dull
That we can let our beard be shook with danger
And think it pastime. You shortly shall hear more."
(IV, vii, 30-33)
And lo! like an avenging fury, he receives at that moment
a letter from the enemy he supposed to be dead. The last
that is good in Claudius disappears. He could say with
"I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er,"
except that, unlike Macbeth, he has done but one murder.
From that time a kind of fixed insanity seizes him, and the destruction of Hamlet becomes his mania, and he gives up
everything — consideration for Gertrude, the affairs of state, his own conscience — to the one aim of wiping out this
shadow in black, this nemesis out of Wittenberg.
Hamlet returns to Elsinore. He knows all. They meet
like wary fencers at the grave of Hamlet's love. Claudius
knows that in the perfect armor of his defence Hamlet has
at last found a flaw ; that he has documentary evidence that
will serve to convince the court of the king's treachery.
cold fury seizes the king; it is now or never; and he concentrates with all his skill, all his iron power of will, upon
the final scene. It will be worthy of his genius. He will play off the son of one murdered man against the son of
another murdered man; the one shall be ostensibly in the
wrong, the other ostensibly seeking justice. This time there
shall be no escape, for Laertes is a master of the foils.
He will play on Hamlet's vanity; Hamlet
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils, so that with ease.
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated."
(IV, vii, 134-138)
If, by a miracle, the contrivance should fail, Laertes shall
anoint his rapier with a poison such that
"no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratched withal."
(IV, vii, 143-146)
And if by a second miracle the poisoned sword should fail,
the king will prepare a deadly cup. But all fails in the
very moment of success; he who commanded events is by
them commanded, and by a kind of cold sarcasm, the last
words the king hears on earth are:
"Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion,"
(V, ii, 336-337)
and yet to every one of these charges he could plead how
human and how sorrowful an excuse!
Hamlet is a family tragedy. But it is more, it is a royal
tragedy, a duel between two opposite conceptions of morality. How much has Claudius a right to yield to the state
in the conduct of his private life? How much has Hamlet a right to demand from the state in the pursuance of his
private vengeance? Has Claudius any justification in killing old Hamlet, though the public good results therefrom?
Has young Hamlet a right to murder Claudius, who is an
able and a needed king?
On the one hand there is the
worldly uncle, mature, able, a shrewd leader of men, every
inch a king, the salvation of Denmark, an accomplished
diplomat, the man for the place and the hour; but his career
is founded upon private crime, and although from such a
crime innumerable benefits flow, it remains a crime to the
end. On the other hand is the scholar Hamlet, adroit in
his own way, every inch a prince, but by nature independent
and solitary, unskilled in government, young, a philosopher
and not a politician, a poet, not a governor of men, intent
upon the laudable purpose of exposing and punishing the
assassin of his father, and in the pursuit of his object, pulling down the whole structure of Danish government, causing five times the misery that Claudius ever caused, defeating at length the utmost skill of his opponent but only
at the cost of his own life and of the independence of his
The love of Gertrude is the king's one source of
comfort; it is for Hamlet a low infatuation, and in the
conflict the queen like all the rest goes down to destruction.
The torment of Cladius is subjective and individual, and
while it so remains Denmark is saved. The conscience of
Hamlet goes out from him like a destroying angel, blasting
all it touches — Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius, Guildenstern,
Rosencrantz, Laertes, Denmark itself. Strange play and
The opposing forces are evenly
matched, the duel is breathless, the question is not resolved
until 82 lines before the end of the drama! And yet of this
intense and breathless tragedy, so admirably illustrative of
Brunetiere's law of the drama, our actors continue to make a
dramatic poem in five acts, in which the hero, for want of
an opponent worthy of him, wanders about the stage uttering soliloquies and indulging in pleasantry with the
1. This statement does not hold for the charge of incest. See below, p. 80
1a. Of course part of the obscenity is due to the stage humor of Hamlet's
"madness." He warns us, too, that he is going to "speak daggers"' to his mother.
2. Note that Gertrude is the "imperial jointress" of the state (I, ii, 9).
3. Shakespeare could hardly do otherwise. The one elective monarchy he knew was
Poland — a by-word for disorderly government. The Holy Roman Empire was the
enemy of England. Hence, the change to a more stable government would naturally
take the direction of the hereditary form. That is why, among other reasons,
Claudius is so insistent on the divine right of kings. See on Poland the chapters
from Fynes Moryson's Itinerary, ed. by Charles Hughes, entitled Shakespeare's
Europe, especially p. 77. London, 1903. Note the hatred for "Poperie."
4. It is almost superfluous to say that the people are to have no voice in the election — something they complain of in the Laertes rebellion.
5. The queen cries out:
"No, no, the drink, the drink, — O my dear Hamlet, —
The drink, the drink ! I am poisoned !"
(V, ii, 301-302)
Unless she is thinking of her first husband — something I very much doubt — this
reads to me as though, having convinced herself in the closet scene that Hamlet is
mad, she now reproaches Hamlet with poisoning her. Has he not attempted the
life of the king? Driven his beloved mad, and killed her? At any rate, it is significant that she never suspects Claudius.
6. Claudius never speaks of the murder as a "sin" but as a "fault," an "offense,
just as Macbeth never uses "sin" to designate the murder of Duncan.
7. Disjoint is admirably and particularly chosen to describe the possibility ahead.
8. Coriolanus, Brutus, and Antony, to go no further, are in the same predicament;
what is privately desirable can not be made to square with what is publicly a duty.
9. The Riddle of Hamlet and the Newest Answers, Boston, 1917, pp. 46-49. All
of chapter VII (Hamlet's Right to the Crown) is of interest at this point. Father
Blackmore believes that Hamlet was a good Catholic.
10. See Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21. Father Blackmore could strengthen his case by calling attention to the penalty attached to such a union. "They shall be childless," runs the second passage.
11. Op. cit., p. 51.
12. Act III, Sc. iv, 88-93 ; 94-96 ; 140-152 ; 156-160. Father Blackmore prints these
ae though they were all one passage.
13. ... the Church which alone could act in the matter had in Denmark no representative with sufficient power to derogate from the law." Op. cit., p. 46.
14. I have fallen into a contradiction of language here more apparent than real. I
am examining every possible statement that Hamlet makes against his uncle; most
of these are found in the soliloquies or in the scene with the ghost. It is noteworthy
how few of Hamlet's charges are made public.
15. It is strange how few have noted that the ghost is a traveller returning from
that bourn and bringing information about it, and that Hamlet doubts both the in-
formation and the ghost.
16. I say that Hamlet doubts, not denies. Hamlet of course speaks of heaven and
hell and recognizes the validity of prayer when he watches the king on his knees.
But he is not a thorough believer.
17. 11, ii, 249.
18. Op. cit., p. 315.
19. . Op. cit.
20. In point of law in Elizabethan England, "marriage required no religious ceremony for its validity, although the omission of it was an offence." Shakespeare's England, Vol. I (1917). Chap. XIII, Laiv, by Arthur Underbill.
21. However, it should be noted that Shakespeare uses "incestuous" but five times:
Hamlet I, ii, 157 ; I, v, 42 ; III, iii, 90 ; V, ii, 336 ; King Lear, III, ii, 55 ; and
that his usage is consistent. See Schmidt's Lexicon and Barlett's Concordance.
How to cite this article:
Jones, Howard Mumford. The King in Hamlet. Austin: University Press, 1918. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletkingdefense.html >.
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