Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and thosefew dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majestyof the state to defend them.
– Nicolo Machiavelli, from The Prince Italianpolitical theorist Nicolo Machiavelli speculated that the strongest leaders areones who are able to carefully balance appearances to his benefit, strategicallyusing them to strengthen his regime. If Machiavelli was indeed correct, thenClaudius, from Shakespeares Hamlet, starts off as an ideal Machiavellianprince. However, as the play develops, Claudius loses his previouslyimmovable command and composure, largely due to his concern over the potentialthreat posed by his stepson, Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Claudiusappears to have complete control over Elsinore, as evidenced by his imposingspeech to the court: Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Thimperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we (as twere with a defeatedjoy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and dirge inmarriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole) Taken to wife.Order now
. . 1. 2: 8-14In this scene, Claudius, who has only recently taken the throne after the deathof his brother, addresses some pressing issues.
Seeking to create a strong earlyimpression, Claudius uses his words very carefully, taking great pains to bothmourn his late brother and celebrate his marriage. Furthermore, with the wordsimperial jointress to this warlike state he justifies the potentiallycontroversial union by making it appear like a benefit to the entire kingdom. Claudius is clearly a shrewd politician, for he deliberately emphasizes thecontrast between his marriage and Hamlets death, using phrases such asdefeated joy and with an auspicious and a dropping eye. The benefitsto such an approach are obvious : on one hand Claudius appeals to popularsentiment by remembering his popular brother, and on the other hand, with hiscelebration of his marriage, the King proves that he is ready to move on andattack his new role with vigor.
The oxymoronic phrases mirth in funeraland dirge in marriage recall Machiavellis words, for Claudiusdemonstrates his ability to express whatever emotions make him look wise andjust, showing that he is in command of Denmark, despite his limited experienceas king. Claudius fortifies his majestic appearance by taking decisive andpositive action. When faced with the threat of Fortinbras, he immediately takesdiplomatic measures, sending Cornelius and Voltemand to protect Denmarksborders and create an alliance with Norway. Later, Laertes asks for permissionto return to France. Knowing the value of the advice of Laertes father,Polonius, Claudius gives his consent in a jovial manner, thus strengthening hisposition with the courtiers.
The King even senses the troubled state of Hamlet,and rather than letting things run their course, Claudius immediately sendsRosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies. Most importantly, in every decision hemakes, Claudius appears confident, maintaining a balanced temperament in thepublic eye. Yet underneath this smooth facade lies a man who is concerned aboveall about Hamlet. A full two months after the death of his father, Hamletcontinues to mourn, thereby keeping Old Hamlets death in the publicspotlight. Claudius, of course, would much rather forget about the incident, forthat would not only decrease the likelihood of his being discovered but alsohelp lighten his overburdened conscience. Unfortunately, Hamlet will not let himnor the public forget.
Furthermore, Claudius realizes that Hamlet has ajustified claim to the throne that could destabilize the Kings regime. In anattempt to alleviate the situation, Claudius stresses Hamlets role as hissuccessor, not potential replacement. Nevertheless, the threat of Hamletremains, and Claudius becomes extremely concerned with it. That do I long tohear! 2. 2: 53 refers not to news of Fortinbras but to the cause ofHamlets perceived lunacy. This exclamation is also the first time that wehave seen Claudius stray from his even-tempered public appearance, as he revealsa bit of emotion where Hamlet is concerned.
The effect of Hamlet on the Kingreaches a climax during The Murder of Gonzago, during which the Kingscomposure breaks down completely. Hamlets plan to confirm Claudius guiltsucceeds brilliantly: when the murder in the play pours poison into Gonzagosear, telling the audience that the plot is based on true events, Claudiussuddenly rises, shouting Give me some light. Away! 3.2: 295 Gone is thecalm that had begun to make Claudius a successful leader, replaced by a suddenoutburst of emotion in