Many great works of literature often focus on personal tragedy and ways of overcoming it. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, the inability of the main characters to confront their problems properly leads to the destruction of all. The antagonist of the play, Claudius, allows his personal ambition for power to overshadow the will of his conscience.
Hamlet opens at the royal castle of Elsinore where a ghost bearing the visage of the recently deceased King Hamlet is seen walking the halls in battle gear. Later it is learned that his brother, Claudius, has taken to the throne with King Hamlet’s ex-wife, Gertrude, after only two months since the King’s passing. The son of the deceased King, Hamlet, sees the marriage as a travesty stating, “(Oh God! A beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer) married with my uncle; My father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules.” (Shakespeare 13) Clearly, Hamlet sees the marriage as incestuous in the beginning ; but he doesn’t take action until he is visited by the apparition of his father who
proclaims that Claudius killed him in lust for power. Hamlet is asked, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love – oh God – Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (27) Here begins Hamlet’s quest to avenge his father by laying ruin to King Claudius. To be certain of the King’s guilt, Hamlet puts on a play bearing a resemblance to how the ghost described the murder. When King Claudius views it, he feels a sudden pang of conscience and abruptly leaves. This flinch provides a first glance by the reader, and
Hamlet that Claudius is guilty and is at odds with himself for his foul actions.
From a soliloquy after storming out of the play, the reader becomesaware of the personal anguish Claudius possesses. “O, my offense is rank, itsmells 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.”(84) For Claudius the act of killing his brother was a grievous one that he now regrets. His strong intent and ambition for the throne has caused him turmoil in heaven’s eyes. The primary consequence of Claudius’s actions on his character is that he will now have to make a huge decision as is delineated further into the soliloquy. “But, o, what form of prayer can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder? That cannot be; since I am still possessed of these effects for which I did the murder – My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain offense?” (84) Will he give up the worldly things he now possesses for forgiveness or will he keep on, undaunted by his guilt and remain stained by his ultimate sin? It seems that the king cannot give up his precious power, but instead asks others to join him in an attempt to oust Hamlet and retain the crown. Claudius asks Laertes, ” Will you be ruled by me (…) I will work him to an exploit now ripe in my device under which he shall not choose but fall; and for his death no wind of blame shall we breath.” (116) Power hungry and greedy, King Claudius has rejected the notions of morality by attempting to kill his nephew and has sealed his fate in the eyes of God.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet pivots on the theme of mastering passionbefore it is too late. Although Claudius confronts his sins committed in search of title and authority, he never takes the steps needed to achieve absolution. Instead, the King opts to use violence to solve his dilemma which results in both the downfall of his royal family and the turning of his “envenomed”(144) blade upon him.