As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross once said, “guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death, most especially if you are the perpetrator of the single most heinous crime of humanity. ” It seems that Miss Kubler-Ross and the character of King Claudius of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet share rather different philosophies on life and probably would not have gotten along too well with each other. In Act Three Scene Three of Hamlet, the newly crowned King Claudius of Denmark is quite the repentant king, languishing over past misdeeds throughout the scene.
At the end of his remorseful soliloquy, he promptly continues on with his errant ways and rather than attempting to rectify his previous sins, he goes on to dig himself deeper into a hole of murder and mistrust. Most newly crowned kings do not find themselves in this less than desirable position, but then again most kings do not ascend to the throne in the devious and murderous ways in which Claudius did: killing his own brother and moving on to marry his brother’s wife, Queen Gertrude, within months of the late king’s death, thereby stealing the throne from the young but able prince Hamlet.
Therein lies the conflict of outlooks between Miss Kubler-Ross and King Claudius. Most would agree that the act of murder would invoke the deepest feelings of regret and remorse and would stir up the zenith of moral struggles within them. Yet Claudius shows no sign of any sort remorse or sense of guilt in the play up until his confession. Once Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have left his quarters with instructions to accompany Hamlet to England where he shall meet his death, the king looks within him and realizes the gravity of his sinful actions.
It seems that the condemnation of Hamlet to his death provokes this introspection of Claudius. This is the first time that Claudius has come out and admitted to the world and more importantly to himself that he indeed killed his beloved elder brother when he admits “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven. / It hath the primal eldest curse upon it, / A brother’s murder. ” Though it is clear that he feels an element of remorse and shows realization that the act of fratricide he committed is a crime of momentous proportions, one can’t help but to look into the conditions which drive him to his rueful confession of guilt.
In the preceding scene, the king is quite unnerved by Hamlet’s play, which portrays a murder of strikingly similar circumstances to that of the murder Claudius carried out against the late King Hamlet. Following the termination of the play, Claudius sees Hamlet as a threat and attempts to have him killed. After giving orders for Hamlet’s death, he starts his soliloquy. The fact that it took the disturbing portrayal of a virtuous king’s death to prompt such emotions of penitence and guilt, emotions that most would have felt immediately after a murderous act, speaks volumes of Claudius’ character.
It shows that at the end of the day, he truly only cares of himself and not much else, and that the guilt he now feels inside of him can not be truly heartfelt as there is no indication that he ever felt such feelings until he felt his state of innocence was threatened. He goes on lament “. What if this cursed hand / Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood, / Is there not enough rain in the sweet heavens / To wash it white as snow?
” In saying these lines, Claudius shifts into more into a state of wonderment as he ponders whether he will ever be rid of the guilt of his actions in this life and in the after life. Though he may be questioning the moral righteousness of his actions, he seems to have completely forgotten that he has just condemned Hamlet to his death, which in essence is committing yet another murder. In that sense the scene seems a bit paradoxical in that though Claudius may be seeking forgiveness for the murder of his brother, he has just initiated the murder of his nephew.
It is this paradox that makes Claudius’ seemingly deeply repentant soliloquy seem phony or at least not truly heartfelt. It is almost as if he has not learnt from his mistakes and continues to go on to do whatever it takes for the preservation of his being king of Denmark even if it equates to the death of more family members. In doing so, his lust for power shines through in this scene and overshadows any other emotions of guilt or remorse he may have portrayed in his soliloquy. This brings about yet another paradox.
As mentioned earlier, Claudius’ greed and hunger for power is what has brought him to the state he is at and is dominant over any other feelings hey may have. However, later in the soliloquy, after some wonderment as to whether his moral slate will ever be wiped clean of his sinful actions he comes to the conclusion that if all stays the way it is, no prayer will ever clear him of his misdeeds. “‘Forgive me my foul murder’? / That cannot be, since I am still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
” In this statement, he admits that until he renounces his ill gotten throne, leaves his illegitimate marriage and rids himself of his sinful ambitions, he will not be able to seek salvation of any sort from the sins he has committed. Yet he lacks the will power to actually carry out what he truly feels and realizes is right and lets the dominance of his insatiable appetite for power and materialistic satisfaction reek over him. Claudius has now shown in two cases in the scene that his character is in fact not completely void of morals, as he does come to realize and differentiate between right and wrong.
Rather, his character is weak in morality, as he lacks the ambition to do what is right and lets the demon in him preside over the angel, and that is what makes him the antagonist of the play. From the moment the scene opens with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and of course the King, there is a sense of haste to it. The King remains perturbed of Hamlet’s seemingly carefully organized and structured play and sends the young Prince’s friends to accompany him to his death. This immediately sets a rather morbid and dark tone to the scene as Claudius embarks upon yet another devious scheme fueled by his desire to stay in his position of power.
Enter Polonius, who speaks of another plan of his to eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and the queen, a decision that eventually leads him to his death. The role of Polonius in this scene only adds to the aura of mistrust and deceitfulness already present. The tone of this scene highlights the corruptness, both morally and politically, the state of Denmark is currently in, thereby fulfilling the foreshadowing that Marcellus had indicated earlier in the play that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
” As the soliloquy begins, the tone of morbidity continues on as Claudius confesses his crime. The tone is then intermingled with feelings of remorse and penitence, adding another dimension to the scene. Though Claudius rants on about his misdeeds and sins for most the soliloquy, these rants are segmented by periodical bouts of self asked questions that add to the king’s helpless state; swaying back and forth between what is right and what is wrong.
Though the overall tone of the scene may be a negative one, there is a definite rhythm to the scene, which is seen and heard both on and off the page. On the page, the lines of the soliloquy take on a definite rhythm and pattern, which is ultimately translated when speaking lines, with sentence lengths varying from short, medium to long. The literary technique of enjambment is utilized here by Shakespeare when one sees the varying lengths of different lines taking some sort of a pattern.
The language used here by the King is colloquial to the time the play was written, however, the language of the soliloquy remains more or less easy to understand, which adds to the reality of the play as the King would see no need to speak in a sophisticated manner to himself. The use of more every day language of the educated in this soliloquy also aides in the success of bringing out the King’s personality; that of a remorseful murder whose unquenchable thirst for power drives him, in full realization of his actions, to commit more misdeeds.
The readers see in this soliloquy a part of Claudius that has never been seen before. Prior to the soliloquy, there is much speculation as to the extent of evil that exists within the newly crowned monarch. Was Claudius indeed a cold blooded killer with a total disregard for any sort of emotion or moral judgment? Or was he a misunderstood character who was wrongly and unjustly accused of murder by a bitter ghost condemned to purgatory? This soliloquy puts to rest the many stinging questions most readers would have had regarding the persona of Claudius.
In this soliloquy, Claudius reveals himself as a confused man, who realizes the wrong in his past and current misdeeds and knows how to rectify them, a benefit many don’t get, but despite this, continues to venture on his destructive path to power only leading him to his own grave. The two paradoxes portrayed in this soliloquy are essentially what constitute his character: he realizes the murder of his brother was wrong but attempts to kill his brother’s son; and he sees that the only way to gain the repentance he so eagerly seeks is to give up all that he has gained from the murderous act yet he does nothing but embrace them.
He does not have inertia in his unwillingness to right his wrongs but rather lacks the will power and morality to do so. He seems to have no problem in carrying out tasks that benefit his path to power but seems to falter whenever they deal with giving up one of the many material satisfactions he has gained from the murderous act he has committed.
It seems that he acts upon his emotions of greed but not on his emotions of guilt, which is signature of a morally frail character. In summation, returning to Miss Kubler-Ross’ words that “guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death most especially if you are the perpetrator of the… crime… “, it has become clear that if guilt, or in this case the sheer lack of it, are not companions of death, the perpetrator in question will be in the company of death.