The Moral Ambiguity In Shakespeare's King Claudius

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The complexity of disposition that is so central to the characters in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet is exemplified best in King Claudius, a man whose ambition and envy leads him to murder his own brother, but whose conscience and morality complicate his intentions. The internal battle within Claudius, revealed in III. iii, muddles the reader’s initial impression of the usurper king, from a ruthless, Machiavellian murderer to a complex, conflicted character. While Claudius enjoys the lavish lifestyle that was the reward of his murderous actions, a part of him feels overwhelming guilt, and this forces him to wrestle uneasily with the future consequences. His Christian upbringing plays an important role in Claudius’ evaluation of his actions; …show more content…
Shakespeare excellently portrays Claudius as a morally complex villain, as he is both intelligent and well-spoken, which are two traits that when combined serve to complement his manipulative and dangerous nature. While it is true that Claudius has stolen the throne by unjust means, Claudius is still a fair and respected king, quick to address the desire for mourning, encourage a focus on the future, and to address and ameliorate any potential anxiety over his marriage with Gertrude. Furthermore, he does this all while decisively dealing with Fortinbras’ challenges to Denmark’s sovereignty by hastily “[dispatching] business with the [Norwegian] king”. His earlier speech juxtaposes the people's loss with the new beginning they will have under his care, and he uses the death of Hamlet's father to create a sense of national solidarity, "the whole kingdom/To be contracted in one brow of woe". Furthermore, Claudius clearly wishes he were a better person who would be more acceptable to God, but ultimately, he is cognizant that he can never overcome his “stronger guilt” because he is unwilling to forfeit “those effects for which [he] did the murder.” However, even this very human fault is understandable; Claudius has taken great risks to get to the throne – at the peril of his eternal soul – and therefore, it makes sense that he would do everything in his power to preserve himself, even as he acknowledges that his “offence is [so] rank [that] it smells to heaven”. Unfortunately, the driving motive behind Claudius’ actions is his greed, and thus the reader might fail to see him as a multi-faceted villain: a man who cannot refrain from indulging his human desires. The dual warring factions within him make the

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