Prince Hamlet and King Claudius: two men at war with each other—and themselves. Both are haunted by the same secret murder. One struggles to repent it; the other struggles to avenge it.
Three 1,500-word model essays on the relationship of Prince Hamlet and King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Two characters with a love of and capacity for play-acting: one in theater, the other in politics.
Imposter king, player prince
A usurping Claudius impersonates a rightful king. An antic Hamlet impersonates himself.
Rather than disclose Claudius’ guilt, The Mousetrap reveals Hamlet’s secret knowledge to Claudius.
The two delayers
Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed. Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet. They both “stand in pause.”
Hamlet is forgiven by Laertes, but he withholds forgiveness from his mother: “Wretched queen, adieu.”
His guilt exposed, Hamlet by two means kills the king whose poison claimed the lives of both his parents.
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.
Prince #Hamlet and King Claudius: two men at war with each other - and themselves.
“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).
A usurping Claudius impersonates a rightful king. An anguished, antic #Hamlet impersonates himself.
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’.
#Hamlet's antic performance at his play leaves him caught in his own 'Mousetrap'.
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.
#Hamlet seeks to reunite in the afterlife his fractured-by-Claudius family of mother and father.
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.
#Hamlet - King Claudius' sentimental descriptions of Gertrude reveal another side of his character.
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.”
#Hamlet damns Claudius to hell in eternal marriage with his mother there.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as both the tragic hero and victim of a story he did not want to be in.
His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
Ophelia’s sanity is overwhelmed by Elsinore’s maddening world of deception and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge against everyone who dismissed, silenced and humiliated her.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she to the water, he to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
A genuine friendship in an Elsinore poisoned by betrayal. But does Hamlet exploit his friend’s loyalty with his improbable tale of divinely-inspired rescue by pirates?
A marriage of practical interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the role of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
Deception, revenge, madness, corruption, decay and death—all shaped by destiny. A prince is left with an impossible choice when his uncle chooses murder and his mother chooses self-delusion.
Two young men journey from revenge, through madness and anger, to forgiveness. An opportunist claims an empty throne. And a restless Ghost is granted atonement for his sins by his kingdom-surrendering son.
‘Seems’ and ‘is’ are as far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are similar in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to play a false role, and to perform in theater.