'A Great Surprise In Hamlet Is That Claudius Has A Conscience' - A-level English - Essay

1193 words - 5 pages

‘A great surprise of the play is that Claudius has a conscience.’
  Even Hamlet, who perceives Claudius in the play as a ‘Remorseless, treacherous,
lecherous, kindless villain’, assumes that Claudius does have a conscience for he asserts
that ‘The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King’. Claudius is not
merely a ‘satyr’ but, in terms of Elizabethan theology, he does have a ‘rational soul’, the soul
which separates Man from the animal kingdom. Furthermore, Hamlet’s attempt to trap
Claudius by prompting his conscience in ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ reminds the audience that
far from being a two-dimensional villain, Claudius is dramatised as a complex character; at
the heart of this complexity is the presentation of a murderer who is aware of his sin, is
tortured by this consciousness, yet is unable to seek redemption.
It is possible to play Claudius as a straightforwardly wicked villain, and in this sense the
revelation of his conscience might come as a ’great surprise’. Tennenhouse observed
‘What more heinous crime could be committed against the aristocratic body than a
fratricide that is also a regicide?’ Bogdanov, in his 1980s National Theatre production
emphasised the role of Claudius as an amoral Machiavellian and yet simultaneously
modern villain simply seeking power. This villainy is sustained even after the ‘Prayer
Scene’ where Claudius’s conscience can be presented as limited by his reluctance to
change as his words ‘fly up’ but his thoughts ‘remain below.’ Later in the play his actions
in the face of threat are not tempered by conscience in their cunning and ruthlessness.
He plots to send Hamlet clinically to his ‘present death’ at the hands of ‘England’ and
conspires with Laertes to kill Hamlet with the double duplicity of a ‘sword unbated’ and
a poisoned ‘chalice.’ Furthermore, the construction of Claudius through the words of
the Ghost and Hamlet are unequivocal. To the Ghost he is ‘an adulterate beast’ and, to
Hamlet, a ‘smiling damned villain’, ‘a satyr’ and a ‘bloody, bawdy, villain.’
However, such a view of Claudius is only part of the picture. The question of ‘conscience’
resonates far beyond the ‘Prayer Scene’. The concept clearly fascinated Shakespeare. The
word ‘conscience’ has two quite distinct but related meanings in Shakespeare’s plays:
the familiar meaning, and the dominant one in the consideration of this topic, is that
of an ‘inner moral voice’, but ‘conscience’ also denoted ‘consciousness’, the faculty of
intellectual awareness and understanding. Both of these meanings illuminate the
villains in Shakespeare’s tragedies – Iago is perhaps unique in having no inner moral
voice, though he is certainly conscious that his villainy is practising the ‘divinity of Hell’;
Edmund does, I believe, take us by surprise in ‘King Lear’ when he says before he dies,
‘some good I mean to do’ and Lady Macbeth’s conscience is dramatised in her tormented
sleepwalking and relentless ‘washing’ of her hands. ...

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