Hamlet: King Claudius and Ourselves

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How come it has taken me this long to get around to reading Hamlet! It is an amazing play that captures so much of what it means to be human in any era. The lines in this play are phenom. My favorite one is said by the horrible King Claudius. Yea I know “to be or not to be” is supposed to be the famous line in this play but who cannot love and feel the impact of what the antagonist says:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never tKing Claudius Prayingo heaven go.” – King Claudius the “incestuous, murderous, damned Dane” according to his nephew Hamlet. This man, Claudius, is a picture of humanity in his plight and his darker nature. In him we can see turmoil, evil, and even as sorrowful as it may be, the beauty of the human condition. King Claudius is clearly the evil villain of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. We find him to be a treacherous, blood soaked, power hungry, murderous and suspicious usurper. We also find that he has a conscience, and even though he lacks a heart of repentance we see in him the knowing of his need to be repentant and even his desire to be so. His desire to be repentant may only be an outpouring of his love for himself rather than his hatred for his actions. His turmoil caused by his love for himself is in every aspect a human trait. Claudius can’t seem to let go of what he values materially, his crown and his queen, yet he also cannot save his own soul by giving up the material and repenting truthfully. In his condition, we can see great sorrow, inspiration, and truth. We can find meaning in his situation and connect with his character on an emotional level. We can also find great beauty in God’s grace and power, though it is elusive and misunderstood by Claudius.

The play of Hamlet is multifaceted. In Hamlet, there is the conundrum of justifying the killing or letting of a murderer live, the issue of suicide and accidental murder, the position of women’s roles, religious ideas dealing with the afterlife and reality of ghosts, and the issue of friendship and family relations. The story Hamlet is about the main character, Hamlet, and the horribly awkward position he is put into. He is asked to avenge his father, the king, by killing his uncle the new king. Hamlet is initially plagued with indecision because of the right or wrongness of such an act or inaction. In the end, when he himself is dying, his mother has been poisoned, and a bunch of other important people (including his lover) have died, he finally decides to kill his uncle. As complicated as the character Hamlet’s plight is, I think his uncle is much more complex and more human. Hamlet represents more of a philosophical situation whereas Claudius represents more so than Hamlet, a human.

Emotionally, we can relate to Claudius. I know that sounds crazy because most of us have never murdered for power (let alone murdered our own brother), but we can still relate because with Claudius we see the torment of a sinful life and the struggle to be repentant. Claudius says, “Try what repentance can: what can it not? Yet what can it when one cannot repent? O wretched state! O bosom black as death!” How many times do we face this same issue? How many times do we not want to give up a vice that we enjoy? Or how hard is it to be sorry for what we have done because we enjoy the benefits we have reaped from our sin even when our conscience sears us? Even more beautiful and emotionally stirring is Claudius’s next plea, “Help, angels! Make assay! Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel, Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!” He asks for a repentant heart! This is biblically accurate to human necessity for God’s help in bringing about true repentance. Often times we struggle with those parts of our heart that will never conform to God, and they must be circumcised by God and His Word. “No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” Romans 2:29. Claudius knows by written law and even a sense of heart that what he has done is wrong but he lacks true full-fledged repentance. We see in him guilt but not conviction.  We know that Claudius is human because Shakespeare makes it a central part of the plot to see that he does suffer some level of conviction and guilt for what he has done. In fact, for Hamlet to get closer to making his decision about carrying out vengeance on his uncle, he puts on a play to see if he can reveal his uncles’ guilt.

Hamlet_Q2_TP_1604What is truly sorrowful in all this is that we never see Claudius experience God’s full grace. Shakespeare gave his character judgment and it was hell. Claudius clearly believed in God but he lacked the faith, the faith that saves by grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—“Ephesians 2:8. He asked for the ability to repent but he asked for it from the angels and not from Jesus. “Help, angels! “ Unfortunately this is all too common today and has been throughout time. People have their conscience seared only to turn to false saviors to relieve them of their guilt. Claudius never is seen repenting. Even at the end when his queen is dying unintentional and unwantedly by his hand, he tries to hide the cause of her death, still covering up his guilt and trying to hide from the consequences of his sin. He says, “She swounds to see them bleed.” When really he knew it was because she drank the poison he meant for Hamlet. To the end of his own life he still defends himself. He plots the death of Hamlet and cries for help when Hamlet stabs him. We all want mercy, we all want grace, but we rarely want to repent of our own volition, and we don’t always turn to the source of grace and power that allows us to repent and be saved: Jesus.

As much as Claudius is a villain, he is also an amazing character and clearly human. He is someone we can connect with and see ourselves in even though we don’t like him. In fact, it might just be because we see a picture of ourselves in him that we dislike him. It could also be why we can, to our own disgust, sympathize with him. Claudius is real, his heart is real, and his human nature that damns him is real. We can see our plight of sin and unwillingness to let it go in King Claudius, the “incestuous, murderous, damned Dane” and we can learn from it. We can come to better understand the truth of who we are, how we struggle, and how to overcome and repent. Claudius shows us the ugliness of unrepentant sin and its spiral. He, as a character in a play, also shows us inadvertently the beauty of the cross and our need for it.

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