Everyone sees what you appear to be. Few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the state to defend them.
Nicolo Machiavelli, from The Prince,” speculated that the strongest leaders are those who are able to carefully balance appearances to their benefit, strategically using them to strengthen their regime. If Machiavelli was indeed correct, then Claudius, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” starts off as an ideal Machiavellian prince. However, as the play develops, Claudius loses his previously immovable command and composure, largely due to his concern over the potential threat posed by his stepson, Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Claudius appears to have complete control over Elsinore, as evidenced by his imposing speech to the court: “Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we (as ’twere with a defeated joy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole) Taken to wife.”
In this scene, Claudius addresses some pressing issues. (1.2:8-14)
Seeking to create a strong early impression, Claudius uses his words very carefully, taking great pains to both mourn his late brother and celebrate his marriage. Furthermore, with the words imperial jointress to this warlike state,” he justifies the potentially controversial union by making it appear like a benefit to the entire kingdom. Claudius is clearly a shrewd politician, for he deliberately emphasizes the contrast between his marriage and Hamlet’s death, using phrases such as “defeated joy” and “with an auspicious and a dropping eye.” The benefits to such an approach are obvious: on one hand, Claudius appeals to popular sentiment by remembering his popular brother, and on the other hand, with his celebration of his marriage, the King proves that he is ready to move on and attack his new role with vigor.
The oxymoronic phrases mirth in funeral” and “dirge in marriage” recall Machiavelli’s words. Claudius demonstrates his ability to express whatever emotions make him look wise and just, showing that he is in command of Denmark despite his limited experience as king. Claudius fortifies his majestic appearance by taking decisive and positive action. When faced with the threat of Fortinbras, he immediately takes diplomatic measures by sending Cornelius and Voltemand to protect Denmark’s borders and create an alliance with Norway. Later, Laertes asks for permission to return to France. Knowing the value of the advice of Laertes’ father, Polonius, Claudius gives his consent in a jovial manner, thus strengthening his position with the courtiers.
The King senses the troubled state of Hamlet and immediately sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies. Claudius appears confident in every decision he makes, maintaining a balanced temperament in the public eye. However, underneath this smooth facade lies a man who is concerned above all about Hamlet. Hamlet continues to mourn two months after the death of his father, keeping Old Hamlet’s death in the public spotlight. Claudius would much rather forget about the incident, as it would decrease the likelihood of his being discovered and help lighten his overburdened conscience. Unfortunately, Hamlet will not let him or the public forget.
Furthermore, Claudius realizes that Hamlet has a justified claim to the throne that could destabilize the King’s regime. In an attempt to alleviate the situation, Claudius stresses Hamlet’s role as his successor, not potential replacement. Nevertheless, the threat of Hamlet remains, and Claudius becomes extremely concerned with it. That do I long to hear!” (2.2:53) refers not to news of Fortinbras but to the cause of Hamlet’s perceived lunacy. This exclamation is also the first time that we have seen Claudius stray from his even-tempered public appearance, as he reveals a bit of emotion where Hamlet is concerned.
The effect of Hamlet on the King reaches a climax during The Murder of Gonzago. During this scene, the King’s composure breaks down completely. Hamlet’s plan to confirm Claudius’ guilt succeeds brilliantly. When the murder in the play pours poison into Gonzago’s ear, telling the audience that the plot is based on true events, Claudius suddenly rises and shouts, Give me some light. Away!” (3.2: 295). Gone is the calm that had begun to make Claudius a successful leader, replaced by a sudden outburst of emotion.