King Claudius is a fictional character from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. He is the brother to King Hamlet, second husband to Gertrude and uncle to Hamlet. He obtained the throne by murdering his own brother with poison and then marrying the late king's widow. He is loosely based on the Jutish chieftain Feng who appears in Chronicon Lethrense and in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum.
Claudius is shown at the beginning of the play to be a capable monarch
as he deals diplomatically with such issues as the military threat from Norway
and Hamlet's depression
. It is not until the appearance of King Hamlet's ghost
that it is revealed that Claudius may have poisoned
the old king in his sleep in order to usurp both his throne and his wife. During the play's progression he takes a turn for the worse by first resorting to spying
, and, when that fails, murder
It is in Act III scene 3, when Claudius forestalls Hamlet's revenge by confessing his sins to God in his own private chapel, that the audience can be sure of his guilt. He is shown to be discontent and unhappy with the events taking place. The young prince spies him brooding about his wrongdoings and trying to pray for forgiveness, but he knows all too well that prayer alone will not save him if he continues to benefit from his own sin. If he was to truly repent, he would have to confess his sin and give up all he achieved through it, which he chooses not to do. Despite his remorse, the King still seeks Hamlet's death in an effort to save both his throne and his life, as he believes the prince is now aware of his part in Old King Hamlet's death. Hamlet is ready to kill him, only to back down, feeling that to kill the King in such a way would contradict the revenge conditions given to him by his father, who commanded him specifically: "Taint not thy mind."
"Oh my offence is rank, it smells to heaven,|
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A Brothers murder."
| — Claudius in Hamlet
for his father Polonius
's death at Hamlet's hands, Claudius finally concocts a 'surefire' plan to deal with Hamlet once and for all. He arranges a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, but plots with Laertes to poison his foil and give Hamlet a poisoned drink. The king's plan fails; Queen Gertrude drinks from the poisoned chalice instead of Hamlet and dies, and Hamlet, after being struck by the poisoned foil, captures the same sword and strikes Laertes. As Norway's army, led by young Prince Fortinbras
, surrounds the castle, Hamlet finally extracts his revenge and slays the king by stabbing him and then forcing him to drink the very poison that Claudius had intended for Hamlet.
It is certainly not difficult to label Claudius as evil
by looking at some of his more unscrupulous actions, yet one must also look at the other side of the king when describing his character. He certainly felt remorse for his earlier actions as shown during his confession scene, and also shows genuine affection and concern for Hamlet for the first two Acts of the play (though the earlier lines can easily be invested with condescension, and it is in the King's best interests for Hamlet to not brood on his father's death).
Some have even suggested that the King may have been Hamlet's real father.
The character of Scar
's The Lion King
was inspired by Claudius. The storyline structure of the brother of a king who kills his brother and usurps his throne only to be deposed by his noble nephew shows clear resemblances. However, Scar is very different from Claudius. Although he is just as cowardly and scheming, he is considerably more sinister and sadistic and shows absolutely no remorse for his actions. He also inspired the character Miraz
in Prince Caspian
(part of The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis
), although Miraz is rather less cowardly. Queen Redd
in The Looking-Glass Wars
by Frank Beddor
probably derives inspiration from Claudius as well, though she is much less cowardly and uses forcible military methods to take over the kingdom and is more of a psychopathic mass-murderer than a reluctant murderer. She even apparently commits suicide at the end of the book. In this aspect most modern-day portrayals of Claudius are much less sympathetic and more fiendish than his Shakespearean depiction.
In Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version of Hamlet, Claudius is played by Derek Jacobi. Jacobi had not only been Branagh's mentor as an actor, but had previously played Hamlet himself with Patrick Stewart playing Claudius in a BBC production. Late in the film, Claudius falls into a stutter, a reference his role in I, Claudius.
In Michael Almereyda's 2000 film version of Hamlet, Claudius is played by Kyle MacLachlan.
Patrick Stewart returns to the role of Claudius with the Royal Shakespeare Company (2008, directed by Gregory Doran).