Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

For some people Claudius is a black hearted villain who is justly punished for the murder of his brother, while for others he is a potentially good king who pays dearly for his past. Discuss with reference to the text.


  • Okay, let’s be honest, the likelihood of this question coming up this year isn’t very high, but a few people have asked me to do a ‘Claudius question’, so here it is. Let’s break it down first:
  • This is actually a very good question because not only do you have so much to talk about, but because you can use so much of the information you have from all of your other essays.
  • Think about it: if we’re talking about the character of Claudius, then there will obviously be points in relation to HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH HAMLET, HIS MALTREATMENT OF WOMEN ANDTHE THEME OF KINGSHIP. Therefore, essays like the ‘role of women’ or even the ‘character of Hamlet’, or ‘revenge as a theme’ will help you with this question.
  • So what am I trying to say? I’m saying that ALLTHE ESSAYS YOU DO FOR HAMLET ARE IMPORTANT BECAUSE THEY ALL RELATE TO EACH OTHER. Therefore, the more you can do, the easier it will be for you to tackle any question.
  • So what if this question doesn’t come up this year? It doesn’t matter, because you will see that there are points you can make in this essay that would easily fit into about 3 or 4 different essays.
  • It’s extremely important to see the bigger picture. Of course you have to attend to the question throughout, but remember what I always say: ALLQUESTIONS AREESSENTIALLY CHARACTER QUESTIONS. This is why this is a useful question – it will help you with many of the play’s central themes.
  • You will probably have noticed by now, but I always open my essays with A RELEVANT QUOTE – it grabs the reader’s attentions and immediately displays your knowledge of the text and you engagement to the question.
  • Don’t forget, when we’re talking about a character, discuss him/her in terms of their INTRODUCTION, DEVELOPMENT and CONCLUSION.
  • This isn’t a question from exam papers, so I have tested it out to make sure you can write it in the 60 minute timeframe. Now bear in mind, I haven’t studied Hamlet in nearly a year, so this morning, I decided to write out this question and answer it from scratch, without looking over any notes or revising anything. AND I HANDWROTE IT IN 50 MINUTES. Therefore, think what you can do – fresh from studying the play, and your mind full of ideas! You guys will breeze through this, but I hope this can maybe give you all some useful tips. I hope all my quotes are up to scratch, but if not, please forgive me…it’s been nearly a year.



“That one may smile and smile and still be a villain”.


These are words spoken by the titular character of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that highlight the essence of the “smiling damned villain” that is Claudius. For some people, Claudius is a black hearted villain who is justly punished for the murder of his brother, while for others; he is a potentially good king who plays dearly for his past. In my opinion, Claudius is a well rounded, multi-dimensional character who can never be judged in a single light. Shakespeare makes Claudius so interesting because, while Claudius is the consummate villain of the play – a usurper, capable of bestial depravity, he is also portrayed as a villain with a conscience. Claudius is duly aware of the gravity of his offence, but he refuses to repent. While Claudius exhibits all the qualities of a good and honourable king, in reality, he is an unscrupulous murderer who is justly punished for his “rank offence”.


When we are first introduced to Claudius, he impresses us as a tactful and diplomatic leader. He balances affairs of state with his marriage to Gertrude, while leadingDenmarkthrough the mourning of his brother’s death – Old Hamlet. Claudius says “we are contracted in one brow of sorrow, with mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage, in equal measure, weighing delight and dole”. It would appear that Claudius possesses all the necessary leadership qualities for a king. He portrays his excellence and showcases his political prowess when he sends Voltimad and Cornelius to Old Norway to stop his nephew Fortinbras trying to attackDenmark. From his introduction, Claudius is presented to us, as Polonius says “a man faithful and honourable”.


However, in reality, Claudius is a sycophant and our hatred of his is largely coloured by Hamlet’s disdain for him. Claudius refers to his nephew Hamlet as “our chiefest courtier, our cousin and our son”. He appeases the Danish prince by telling him that “you are the most immediate to our thrown”. Once again, we view Claudius as someone who knows how to deal with people – acquiescing Hamlet and asking him not to return to university inWittenberg. When Hamlet agrees to stay inDenmark, he does so on his mother’s request, saying “I shall in all my best, obey you, madam”. Hamlet’s deliberate exclusion of Claudius arouses our suspicions towards Claudius and because we sympathise with Hamlet as the play’s tragic hero, we tend to distrust Claudius almost immediately. However, he shows no signs of cracking, simply saying “tis a loving and fair reply”. Claudius, is you seem has the potential to be a good king – he is unfazed by Hamlet’s remarks and continues to leadDenmarkthrough the grieving of their former king. This presents the audience with an interesting idea – is it necessary to be a scrupulous and moral person to be a tactful and effective leader? After all, one could argue that Claudius is an extremely capable king who doesn’t let his personal life get in the way of his politics – which is slightly ironic, when one considers how he achieved his crown.


It is not until the appearance if the Ghost that we learn of Claudius’ “rash and bloody deed”. The Ghost charges Claudius with bestial depravity which is both fratricide and regicide and this cements Hamlet’s hatred of him. The Ghost says, “the serpent that did sting the father’s life now wears the crown”. The Ghost urges Hamlet to exact revenge on Claudius by telling him to “revenge his most foul and unnatural murder”. It is in this scene that we see just how menacing and calculating Claudius really is. He is not the noble king he would like us to believe he is – Claudius is nothing but a black hearted villain, who “won by shameful lust the will of my most seeming virtuous queen”. Claudius murdered Old Hamlet while he was sleeping by pouring a “leprous distilment” into his ear. This is an extremely important scene because it unmasks the true Cladius – a cowardly, “baudless” and “kindless villan”. We as an audience fully support Hamlet when he ensues to “put an antic disposition on”, because we feel that Claudius is deserving of everything he gets. Claudius’ methods are calculating and deceitful – elucidating his cunning and callous disposition.


Hamlet’s apparent madness causes great worry in the Danish court, but this worry is most prevalent in Claudius. However, unlike Gertrude, Claudius is in no way concerned with his nephew’s mental nadir, but it instead conscious of the fact that “madness in great ones must not unwatched go”. Polonius tells Claudius that the real reason Hamlet is mad is because of his unrequited love for his daughter Ophelia. Claudius proves himself to be utterly unscrupulous – hiding behind the arras with his “lawful espial” Polonius to eavesdrop on Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s conversation. Claudius soon realises that unrequited love is not the cause of the Danish prince’s madness and urges “dear Rosencrantz” and “gentle Guildenstern” to “glean” what information they can from Hamlet. Claudius is an amoral sycophant and completely self absorbed and villainous.


Nevertheless, throughout the play, we, as an audience, question whether Hamlet’s madness is indeed feigned or is in fact real – caused by the death of his dearly beloved father? This in turn, causes us to wonder whether or not Claudius is the murderer – after all, he appears to be and able and fair king. However, when Hamlet vows “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”, Claudius’ guilt, treachery and sheer black heartedness come to the fore. Claudius, clearly uneasy by the re-enactment of his crime, rushed out of the theatre, screaming for air. It is perceptible to the audience that Claudius is most definitely the murderer and his admission of guilt in the Prayer Scene confirms this:


“O! My offence is rank and smells 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”.


Claudius’ guilt is blindingly evident, but he cannot pray for forgiveness, because he refused to forgo the merits of his crime – namely “my crown, mine own ambition and my queen”. It is interesting to note that Gertrude only features as a third in his list of priorities – underlining the fact that he is a completely self-centered, morally inept criminal, who favours power and money over human relationships. Claudius’ villainy in nowhere more evident than when, soon after the Prayer Scene he sends Hamlet to his death inEngland, referring to him as a “foul disease”. Claudius only cares about himself – a ruthless usurper who will do anything to protect himself and hold onto what he has gained through criminal and unlawful deeds.


It is in the final scene that we see just how black hearted and callous Claudius is. Hamlet has outsmarted him and returned fromEngland– alive and unharmed. Claudius quickly placated a raging Laertes who is livid upon seeing the man who killed his father. Claudius persuades Laertes to kill Hamlet in a duel, by stabbing him with a poison sword. It seems that the calculating antagonist has a predilection for poison – killing his own brother with a “leprous distilment”, filling a poison chalice for Hamlet to drink from and covering the tip of Laertes’ sword with a “deadly poison”. These all serve to exemplify just how twisted and brutal Claudius is. If he ever possessed the potential to be a good king, then he is thwarted at every turn by his own cruel and sick deeds. However, Claudius’ plans backfire and Laertes confesses all to Hamlet and tragically, it is Gertrude and not Hamlet who drinks from the poison chalice, with Claudius weakly telling her “Gertrude, do not drink”. It seems rather fitting that Claudius would die; drinking from the same poison chalice – given his infamous affiliation with it. Laertes, Gertrude and the “noble prince” all die because of the black hearted villain Claudius.


Claudius is the consummate villain – one who hides behind a mask of nobility and regal grandeur. To some, Claudius is a potentially good king who pays dearly for his past, but Claudius’ diplomacy, tact and shrewdness and overshadowed by his manipulative, callous and cold heart. He is the leader of a depraved underworld which is “disjoint” and “stewed in corruption”. It is because of Claudius that all the major characters of the play die, therefore, we feel justice has been done and he has been rightly punished, when Hamlet sends him to his death as a “kindless, treacherous, lecherous, remorseless villain”.


There you go folks! Happy writing!



Claudius character question – Jamie Tuohy


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