Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - cover image

The Relationship of Hamlet and Claudius: Sample Essays

Two men at war with each other—and themselves. Both are haunted by the same secret murder. Claudius struggles to repent it (“O heavy burden!”). Hamlet struggles to avenge it (“Am I a coward?”).

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

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Introduction

The characters of Prince Hamlet and King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet provide examples of both external and internal conflict. They are two individuals at war with each other—and themselves.

Hamlet enjoys play-acting in theater. Claudius practices play-acting in politics. The prince’s happiest moment in the play is the Players’ arrival (“there did seem in him a kind of joy”, 3.1). In 4.7, the king delights in conspiring “a little shuffling” with Laertes: a sharpened, tainted sword and—in the event of a “bad performance”—a poisoned wine goblet.

Their relationship begins with mutual suspicion, escalates into a psychological battle, and ends with defeat for both and victory for the rival kingdom of Norway.

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Prince #Hamlet and King Claudius: two men at war with each other - and themselves.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • King Claudius begins the play at his highest point, Prince Hamlet at his lowest.
  • The Denmark his father ruled for three decades is now his son’s “prison” (2.2) from which the prince is allowed no escape.
  • King Hamlet once stood between Claudius and the throne and queen. Now Prince Hamlet threatens his hold on each.
  • Hamlet describes his uncle as “canker of our nature” (5.2). To Claudius, Hamlet is “th’ ulcer” (4.7) who is “like the hectic in my blood“ (4.8).

Key Supporting Quotes

18
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Imposter king, player prince:
“Who’s there?”

“Who’s there?”—The guard Barnardo’s opening question is asked by prince and king of each other over the play’s first three acts. Claudius impersonates a rightful monarch; as he admits to himself, his false kingship is like a “beautied … harlot’s cheek” (3.1). Hamlet impersonates himself; for his put-on “antic disposition” (1.5) expresses his very real inner turmoil: “it hath made me mad” (3.1).

With Polonius, Claudius directs Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Ophelia against the prince in contrived, “‘twere by accident” (3.1) ‘plays-within-a-play’ to uncover “Where truth is hid” (2.2). The Players’ arrival enables Hamlet to use professional actors in his own theatrical ploy “to catch the conscience of the king” (2.2).

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A usurping Claudius impersonates a rightful king. An anguished, antic #Hamlet impersonates himself.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • About Hamlet, Claudius fears “something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood” (3.1).
  • Claudius is less interested in Polonius’ news from Norway than in the mental state of Hamlet: “O, speak of that! That do I long to hear” (2.2).
  • Of Ophelia, Hamlet asks, “Where is your father?” (3.1), suspecting correctly that the king’s advisor is eavesdropping nearby.
  • Despite his “antic disposition” (1.5), Hamlet’s sharp awareness of others’ duplicity never deserts him. All efforts to “board him” (2.2) are quickly exposed and scornfully repelled.

Key Supporting Quotes

29
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The reverse revelation:
“The play’s the thing”

As shown later with Laertes’ castle invasion, Claudius is too composed a figure to betray emotion. It is rather Hamlet’s “occulted guilt” that is exposed by The Murder of Gonzago in 3.2. The prince’s public threat to the king’s life (“nephew to the king”) provides a plausible excuse for Claudius to slink away, his crime still unrevealed to the court.

Minutes later and still inflamed by the “knavish piece of work … writ in choice Italian”, Hamlet rashly stabs Polonius (“Dead for a ducat”, 3.4). Claudius then exiles Hamlet to England, supposedly “for thine especial safety” (4.3), but in reality to his execution. Like Polonius’s son in the final scene (“as a woodcock to mine own springe”, 5.2), Hamlet is caught in his own ‘Mousetrap’.

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#Hamlet's antic performance at his play leaves him caught in his own 'Mousetrap'.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Claudius instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to encourage Hamlet’s interest in the Players: “drive his purpose on to these delights” (3.1)
  • As the play unfolds, the king grows suspicious—“Is there no offense in ’t? … What do you call the play?” (3.2).
  • Hamlet’s antic banter sabotages his play-within-a-play’s purpose and damages his reputation as heir. The prince is afterwards remembered as “he that is mad and sent into England” (5.1).
  • All except “hoodman-blind” (3.4) Gertrude must recognise her public shaming in the figure of the Player Queen. Her “withers are unwrung” (3.3).

Key Supporting Quotes

21
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The two delayers:
“I stand in pause”

In 3.3, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play does cause the king to “proclaim” his “malefactions” (2.2)—but in his private chapel rather than publicly in front of the court. Torn between repenting (“O limed soul”) or retaining “those effects for which I did the murder”, Claudius feels “like a man to double business bound.”

The man who he is like is, of course, Hamlet. The prince’s twin purpose now reveals itself (“Up, sword… My mother stays”): to first rescue his mother’s soul before he can condemn his uncle’s (“as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes”). And in so doing, restore in the afterlife his parents’ fractured marriage. Like Pyrrhus in the Player’s speech, Hamlet’s sword must “i’th’ air to stick” (2.2), awaiting the right moment to strike.

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#Hamlet seeks to reunite in the afterlife his fractured-by-Claudius family of mother and father.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • The chapel scene is the only one when Hamlet and Claudius share the stage together. Yet no words pass between them and neither hears the other speak.
  • In 3.1, Ophelia only pretended to be deep in prayer—complete with a devotional book helpfully supplied as prop by her father. Claudius is genuinely trying to pray (“Help, angels”, 3.3), if unsuccessfully.
  • The Ghost who appears minutes later in Gertrude’s closet to Hamlet (“to whet thy almost blunted purpose”, 3.4) does not show himself in the chapel, suggesting he is indeed a “goblin damned” (1.4).

Key Supporting Quotes

22
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Queen Gertrude: “Cleft my heart in twain”

Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius is tainted with mutual ambition, for she retains through her second marriage the queenly position she acquired by her first.

Her relationship with her son is overshadowed by two factors: Hamlet’s disgust at her remarriage and Gertrude’s incomprehension at his unhappiness about his forced confinement away from Wittenberg in the “cheer and comfort” (1.2) of Claudius’ watchful eye.

Whatever the extent of Gertrude’s guilt, Hamlet’s parting words to her (“Wretched queen, adieu”) reveal that the forgiveness a repentant Laertes extended him (“Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee”), the prince is unwilling to grant to his mother.

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#Hamlet - King Claudius' sentimental descriptions of Gertrude reveal another side of his character.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • King Hamlet’s Ghost describes Claudius as an “adulterate beast” (1.2)—a debased individual—but not, significantly, an adulterous one.
  • Despite Hamlet’s accusation of “Frailty” (1.2) towards his mother, Gertrude remains steadfastly at her second husband’s side.
  • Gertrude’s loyalties are divided between husband and son: “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.” (3.4).
  • Gertrude’s tragic flaw is what she does not know—or perhaps by what suspects but refuses to see—until it is too late.

Key Supporting Quotes

22
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion:
“As kill a king”

Claudius stole two roles previously played by his brother: husband and king. For her part in the first, Gertrude forfeits her life when she drinks from the poisoned wine goblet. For colluding in the second, the country’s nobles lose their political power to Norway.

His third role-grabbing attempt was directed at his nephew: “think of us / As of a father” (1.2). But Hamlet could and did not. In the final 5.2 scene, despite the shouted cry of the court (“Treason”), Hamlet by two means kills the man whose poison took the lives of both his parents, listing his crimes as he does—“thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane.

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#Hamlet damns Claudius to hell in eternal marriage with his mother there.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Gertrude’s damning contradiction of Claudius’ excuse for her fainting (“She swoons to see them bleed”, 5.2) prompts Laertes’ confession (“The king’s to blame”, 5.2)
  • Claudius is torn between saving Gertrude and concealing his poisoning plan.
  • Laertes, the avenger Hamlet’s desire for revenge created, is also the man who pardons the prince.
  • Hamlet kills Claudius without making any reference to vengeance for old King Hamlet.

Key Supporting Quotes

34
quotations from the play to support your statements.