Claudius is undoubtedly considered the main villain in Hamlet, due to the murder of the King. However, Shakespeare has made his character a lot more nuanced.
His actions after his initial villainous crime are representations of his ability to manipulate, showing his intelligence rather than his villainy. This argument is supported by a possible interpretation of the fact that the killing of the Old King may have been justifiable, and beneficial for the country.
The King also shows signs of affection and empathy, causing one to rethink their assumption about him as a villain. When one sees his character, not in the presence or being talked about by Hamlet or the Old King, there are many instances where he is capable of evoking sympathy from the audience.
These mostly occur near the end of the play, or as soliloquies; as this is the only chance we must see Claudius’s perspective, rather than the bias of Hamlet or the Ghost.
We are informed by the Ghost that, “Thus was I, sleeping by a brother’s hand, Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched”, proving Claudius had done a villainous deed by taking King’s life, for his own gain. The fact that Claudius then waves the death off by telling Hamlet, “But you must know, your father lost a father”, suggesting that Claudius perceives the death as an inevitable act of nature, completely justifiable.
Shakespeare uses repetition to emphasize Claudius’s point and creates a rhythmic structure to the sentence. It also makes the situation less personal, as the listing of people causes the audience to momentarily forget about the old King, making him just seem one of many. In the 1600s, when the play was first acted out, it was believed that the King was the embodiment of God, and murdering a King was blasphemy. Therefore in that era, Claudius would be despised by everyone watching.
This alone is enough reason to think that Claudius was solely a villain, and it would prevent the audience in Shakespeare’s time from thinking this could be for valid reasons. To a modern audience, Claudius’s action of murder is still wrong; but if there is a possibility that he did it to preserve Denmark, and its honor and people. There is a chance he had a firm belief in himself to rule Denmark better, as his level of intelligence is a proven trait of his.
This level of intelligence again may bring him across as a villain as his intentions are not moral, especially when he attempts to manipulate Laertes in order to kill Hamlet by playing his weakness against himself. Laertes is furious about the death of his father and insists that, “My revenge will come”.
To spur him on, Claudius subtly asks, “Was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of the sorrow”. This shows his ability to manipulate the exact way for each individual. It may seem villainous, however, one can also interpret that as having a high level of intelligence, which may be essential to the running of Denmark.
Claudius shows this in the opening scenes, where even though his attitude towards the death of the King is considered villainous, the fact that is overlooked is that he is concerned for the country, and talks about how, “Young Fortinbras, holding a weak supposal of our worth”, showing the audience his concern for the country.
One gets a biased view of Claudius, mainly through Hamlet and the Ghost; whom he has directly wronged. This portrays him to be villainous but one needs to consider the perceptual bias Hamlet has of Claudius. When one sees Claudius in the presence of other characters such as Gertrude or Ophelia, they see his loving side blossom, where Gertrude is, “conjunctive to my life and soul”.
With Ophelia, he shows genuine concern, as he questions, “how do you, pretty lady?” Hamlet though fails to have the empathy Claudius has. Claudius has the empathy to understand the loyalty of Laertes, regardless of his intentions. Hamlet, “clefts” his mother’s, “heart in twain”, and due to his lack of courage, is the root of Ophelia’s madness.
He tells her, “get thee to a nunnery”, as he projects his feelings of frustration and clear madness on them. One may even suggest that he is choosing to abuse women, as they are powerless against him. Claudius, compared to Hamlet; respects both women and protects them, regardless of his heinous crimes is not completely immoral.
One can presume that all of this is an act, and it seems so when he sends Hamlet to England, “Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety—. Which we do tender as we … For your own protection”. In previous more private scenes, it is obvious Claudius thinks, “How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!”, which on one hand shows his superficiality and ease in lying to get rid of any chance of him being found out, but also shows him as caring.
Hamlet abused his mother, Ophelia, and was showing strong signs of madness; hence another instance where we are never shown enough about Claudius; lacking the soliloquy to decide which way is more likely.
As his soliloquy is a pivotal point of the play, where we see why he is not a complete villain and conjures the most sympathy for him. One must also consider that due to him being alone, there is a high chance that his true feelings about his crimes are finally heard. Claudius, uses strong imagery and variance of sentence structure to show his mental state as well as strong emotions about his actions.
His first sentence is shocking, where he tells the audience that, “my offence is rank. It smells to heaven”. This shows the audience that he is aware of the gravity of his crime, that its stench has reached the gods and Claudius laments that fact. “Pray can I not” is where the first real motive to evoke sympathy is shown, as he is unable to pray, due to the heaviness of the guilt.
These small actions represent Claudius’s extremely troubled state of mind, and the small sentences represent his instability; and dark imagery. Him talking about his, “bosom as black as death!” represents his high emotions, as well as the depressed state. All of these work together, in order that the audience is moved by him; and although this does not make him less of a villain, it does mean that one can feel sorry for him.