Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them. – Nicolo Machiavelli, from The Prince Italian political theorist Nicolo Machiavelli speculated that the strongest leaders are ones who are able to carefully balance appearances to his benefit, strategically using them to strengthen his regime. If Machiavelli was indeed correct, then Claudius, from Shakespeares Hamlet, starts off as an ideal Machiavellian prince.
However, as the play develops, Claudius loses his previously mmovable command and composure, largely due to his concern over the potential threat posed by his stepson, Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Claudius appears to have complete control over Elsinore, as evidenced by his imposing speech to the court: Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th imperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we (as twere with a defeated joy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole) Taken to wife… 1. 2: 8-14]
In this scene, Claudius, who has only recently taken the throne after the death f his brother, addresses some pressing issues. Seeking to create a strong early impression, Claudius uses his words very carefully, taking great pains to both mourn his late brother and celebrate his marriage. Furthermore, with the words imperial jointress to this warlike state he justifies the potentially controversial union by making it appear like a benefit to the entire kingdom.
Claudius is clearly a shrewd politician, for he deliberately emphasizes the contrast between his marriage and Hamlets death, using phrases such as defeated joy and with an auspicious and a dropping eye. The benefits o such an approach are obvious : on one hand Claudius appeals to popular sentiment by remembering his popular brother, and on the other hand, with his celebration of his marriage, the King proves that he is ready to move on and attack his new role with vigor.
The oxymoronic phrases mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage recall Machiavellis words, for Claudius demonstrates his ability to express whatever emotions make him look wise and just, showing that he is in command of Denmark, despite his limited experience as king. Claudius fortifies his majestic appearance by taking decisive and ositive action. When faced with the threat of Fortinbras, he immediately takes diplomatic measures, sending Cornelius and Voltemand to protect Denmarks borders and create an alliance with Norway. Later, Laertes asks for permission to return to France.
Knowing the value of the advice of Laertes father, Polonius, Claudius gives his consent in a jovial manner, thus strengthening his position with the courtiers. The King even senses the troubled state of Hamlet, and rather than letting things run their course, Claudius immediately sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies. Most importantly, in every decision he makes, Claudius appears confident, maintaining a balanced temperament in the public eye. Yet underneath this smooth facade lies a man who is concerned above all about Hamlet.
A full two months after the death of his father, Hamlet continues to mourn, thereby keeping Old Hamlets death in the public spotlight. Claudius, of course, would much rather forget about the incident, for that would not only decrease the likelihood of his being discovered but also help lighten his overburdened conscience. Unfortunately, Hamlet will not let him or the public forget. Furthermore, Claudius realizes that Hamlet has a justified claim to the throne that could destabilize the Kings regime. In an attempt to alleviate the situation, Claudius stresses Hamlets role as his successor, not potential replacement.
Nevertheless, the threat of Hamlet remains, and Claudius becomes extremely concerned with it. That do I long to hear! [2. 2: 53] refers not to news of Fortinbras but to the cause of Hamlets perceived lunacy. This exclamation is also the first time that we have seen Claudius stray from his even-tempered public appearance, as he reveals bit of emotion where Hamlet is concerned. The effect of Hamlet on the King reaches a climax during The Murder of Gonzago, during which the Kings composure breaks down completely.
Hamlets plan to confirm Claudius guilt succeeds brilliantly: when the murder in the play pours poison into Gonzagos ear, telling the audience that the plot is based on true events, Claudius suddenly rises, shouting Give me some light. Away! [3. 2: 295] Gone is the calm that had begun to make Claudius a successful leader, replaced by a sudden outburst of emotion in the presence of many others. Now that Claudius ven-tempered shell has been shattered, we get a better idea of what he would call the inward man. [2. : 6]
In the third scene of the third act, we finally see Claudius alone, and he reveals his innermost thoughts while acknowledging his guilt. Clearly, he is not a cold-blooded and inhumane monster but a person whose conscience is making him regret his sins. He explores the similarities between himself and Cain, the Biblical first man to commit fratricide. Claudius knows that in order to achieve divine salvation he must be truly repentant for his sins. However, he is unwilling to give up either the rown or Gertrude, both of which he loves very much, and he resigns himself to a hopeless fate.
Claudius is clearly a tormented man who has fallen victim to the temptations of love and power, very similar to the situation of Macbeth. At no point in the play does Claudius glorify his crime; instead, he simply tries to forget about it and move forwards. In the first two acts, Claudius is able to mask his turbulent conscience with a confident appearance. While this approach certainly succeeds in making Claudius a strong leader, it is unable to heal the deep wounds in his soul. As the King wrestles with the increasingly unenviable ask of balancing his outward appearance with his interior thought, it is impossible not to feel sorry for him.
By the time Claudius kneels and prays, he has been reduced to a man who is now the slave of one terrible deed. To properly portray Claudius, an actor must focus on the gradual fall of the character. In the first two acts, Claudius is at his best, running the court with the sharpness of an experienced leader and decisively acting on every issue of importance. Therefore, the actor must have an imposing and confident presence on stage, for Claudius dominates Elsinore and is in full control of Denmark.
However, by the third act, the King must be depicted as a man who is growing increasingly fearful of Hamlet, and during the play, Claudius is so startled that he must appear as though he has seen the ghost of Old Hamlet. But in my opinion, Claudius defining moment comes during his lengthy soliloquy in which he acknowledges his guilt. As he mourns his condemned soul, he should seem so helpless that the audience views him with intense pity, for the character of Claudius, like Macbeth, is not intended to represent evil but instead to show the universal ability of power to corrupt and to destroy lives in the process.