Claudius: Character Analysis
Claudius is the embodiment of power and the vehicle through which Shakespeare shows how class and power impact those pursuing it, those trying to hold onto it, and even those who aren’t trying to get power, but who are surrounded by it. In the society presented in Hamlet, power is nearly synonymous with class. The people with the most power are upper class and those who do not find themselves reliant upon and subject to the will of those in the upper class. Claudius murders Hamlet’s father in order to marry Gertrude and become king himself. Throughout the play, Shakespeare comments on Claudius’s power by consistently reminding the audience that everything that happens is at the pleasure and bidding of the king. Claudius can position people and use them to his own ends because of his power and status. He does so throughout the play. His behavior is presented by Shakespeare as an illustration of what people are willing to do for power. Ophelia is reminded that regardless of Hamlet’s feelings about her, his choice in a spouse is really made by the king. Travel arrangements are approved by the king. Laertes cannot even return to school without first petitioning the king. Claudius manipulates Laertes into killing Hamlet, pretending it is to avenge his father’s death when in reality Claudius is only using him. Although Hamlet becomes very angry with his mother for marrying Claudius after his father’s death, Gertrude nearly must marry in order to maintain her position. She is vulnerable without a king or even a husband. Thus, Claudius without the title of king prior to marrying Gertrude has power over Gertrude, who is at the time, the queen.
Actually, the position of the female characters in the play illustrates the role of power and class. Ophelia is a character Shakespeare uses to say much about power and class. As a woman, Ophelia has little power. What little power women have is in marriage, and Ophelia does not even have that. Throughout the play, she is under the thumb of her father, brother, and even ultimately Hamlet. Ophelia is dependent upon the men around her. Her brother reminds her that Hamlet himself does not have the power to decide to marry her. “His will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth” (Act I, scene iii). Ophelia’s father and brother know that Hamlet’s class will not allow him to marry Ophelia. Even while chastising his sister to behave and be moral, Ophelia is aware that her brother can behave as he wants in France. She is aware of her lack of power, and Shakespeare presents her situation to the audience as a commentary on the limited options for women. When her brother later decides that Hamlet must be so in love with his sister that he is crazy with love, Ophelia is again at the mercy of the men around her, who set her up for an encounter with Hamlet. When Hamlet tells her, “I say, we will have no more marriages” (Act III, scene i), Ophelia is left humiliated and heart-broken.
Hamlet himself is a vehicle for Shakespeare’s comments on class and power. Hamlet exercises his power over others in the play and has power exercised upon him. His comments to his mother and Ophelia represent use of power. He casually tells Ophelia to get to a nunnery and questions her motives, which leads to her going mad and drowning. He lashes out at his mother, expressing his displeasure and disdain because of her speedy remarriage, wounding her. He never stops to consider her vulnerable social and political position. It does not seem to occur to him that she has very little choice herself. Hamlet exercises power by first pretending to be insane, which exerts pressure and guilt over those around him. Finally, because Hamlet would have ascended to the throne if Claudius had not “killed my king and whored my mother” (Act V, scene ii), Hamlet’s actions are somewhat motivated by power. He does want to avenge his father’s death, but he is bothered by Claudius usurping the throne as well, as he points out in this next line: “Popp’d in between the election and my hopes” (Act V, scene ii). It seems clear that Shakespeare is commenting on power and its ability to drive people to the lowest depths of behavior in search of it.