You know how you’re having a day where you’re really emotional about something – perhaps something bad has happened in your life or you are overwhelmed with stress, or you could even be grieving? Right, and then you know how when you’re feeling all those feelings, and someone tells you to “get over it” and WHOOSH – all those feelings just evaporate in an instant and you start feeling fine again? No? Not your experience? Yeah, me neither.
Hamlet feels the same way. No amount of grieving for the death of his Father is lessening the pain. No amount of time passing is making him feel any better. He is well and truly held in his grief, and in this moment in the play, Act 1, Scene 2, Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle – Now the King of Denmark) uses this speech to essentially tell Hamlet to ‘get over it’. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t work. Hamlet doesn’t ‘get over it’ any time soon.
This is a fantastic speech for an actor looking to practise or demonstrate their ability to play high status. This is a public speech, with Claudius holding space in front of several people. The speech is powerfully and masterfully crafted, demonstrating high intelligence and command over language.
Act 1, Scene 2 is (obviously) right at the beginning of the play. In fact, this scene is the first time we have met the main cast of players, including Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and, of course, Claudius. As such, these words spoken by the royal court are incredibly informative to the audience about who these people are and what the relationship dynamics are between them.
The main thing for the actor playing Claudius to know (but not necessarily to ‘play’ – it is a secret hidden well) is that he did, in fact, murder his brother The King: Hamlet’s Father. This secret is entrenched in the soul of Claudius, but (as we will discuss in the ‘In Performance’ section) he is an expert in covering it with words and a regal presentation of his character.
Claudius is talking to Prince Hamlet, the son of the recently deceased King, who has refused to stop mourning this death, even after everyone else has moved on. In this speech, Claudius is pleading with Hamlet to ‘lighten up’ and relieve himself of his deep sadness, which follows him like a cloud wherever he goes.
One final note on Claudius (and a lot of Shakespeare’s monarchs): He uses a collective pronoun to refer to himself. Claudius will refer to himself as ‘Us’ and ‘Our’ instead of saying ‘me’, ‘I’ or ‘mine’. This is fairly common throughout Shakespeare’s canon, as the King or Queen is referring to themselves as the head of state and AS the state itself. Claudius as the King IS Denmark, and so will refer to himself as such. This can get confusing as at some points in this speech he may be in fact referring to his and Gertrude’s desires (‘It is most retrograde to our desire’), but he also might just be speaking for himself.
‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’ We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father: for let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne;
And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart toward you. For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
Commendable: Deserving praise (of character)
Filial: Relating to/ or being of: son or daughter
Obsequious: Obedient or attentive to in an excessive or servile way
Persever: Archaic form and pronunciation (per-SEV-er) of persevere. To continue a course of action in the face of difficulty.
Obstinate: Stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or course of action
Condolement: Archaic form of condolence. An expression of sympathy with someone in grief
Impious: Showing a lack of respect for God or religion
Retrograde: Directed or moving backwards
Beseech: Ask someone to do something urgently
Courtier: A person who attends the Royal court as companion or advisor to the King or Queen
It is sweet and praiseworthy in your character, Hamlet
To mourn your Father so dutifully.
But you must know that your Father lost his Father.
And your Grandfather lost his Father,
And each son of a dead Father mourned the loss for a period of time.
But to persevere with your grief so stubbornly and for so long is offensive to the Gods.
It’s unmanly grief. It shows a desire most incorrect to heaven,
A weak heart, an impatient mind,
A juvenile mind,
For death is inevitable: everyone can see that,
So why should we feel so emotionally about it?
Gosh! This is an offense to heaven, an offense to the dead, an offense to nature
(Who’s unbreakable rule is that Fathers will live and die – Nature has always said this must be so)
I’m begging you: let go of this unending sadness, and think of me as your Father.
For, let the world take note, you are next in line for the throne;
And with no less love than the best Fathers give their sons, do I give to you.
Now, about your wish to leave Elsinore and return to your university in Wittenberg:
This is the opposite of what your Mother and I would like.
I beg you, implore you to stay here, in the comfortable company of your family,
You are our number one member of the court, cousin Hamlet, and my son.
Notes on Performance
To play Claudius is to make a choice as to how he is ‘pitched’. Like most of the supporting characters in Hamlet, Claudius exists on a spectrum of portrayal. He is not necessarily as complete or detailed by Shakespeare as Hamlet is, but there is still room for the actor to determine aspects of his character within the performance. The actor must decide, for instance, how cunning and villainous Claudius is. How present are his aspirations in his character? How clearly can we see in him the potential to murder his brother in cold blood?
To help us make these decisions, we must search far and wide within the text for evidence.
A great way for us to figure out the outward presentation of a character is to look at what the other characters say about them. In the case of Hamlet, Claudius is talked about a LOT by the Prince himself. Being the guy who married his Mother, (and who is then accused by the ghost of his father to have been the murderer of his Father) we can understand why Hamlet is pretty concerned with all things Claudius related. Let’s look at a description of a ritual which Claudius is said to have undertaken early in the play:
The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
At this moment, a cannon is being fired at a time close to midnight every time the King finishes his drink. From this we get an indication that Claudius is partial to a bit of a party, and is perhaps someone who frequently indulges in drinking and revelry, potentially at the expense of those around him. Later on in the play, when Hamlet is considering when and how to kill Claudius, he describes some of the activities Claudius is frequently occupied with:
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Hamlet knows he will have a chance to kill Claudius (who is currently praying) when he is behaving less piously. All these words spoken by Hamlet are valuable pieces of evidence for the actor playing Claudius to consider. However, we must take into account the bias of Hamlet and how that influences his opinion of The King’s character.
We have a depiction from Hamlet as Claudius being a man of drunken revelry and indulgence. Let’s hear from Claudius himself to see what other characteristics arise. Let’s go right to the marrow of the bone and look at Claudius’ confession speech, where he regales the audience with (finally) the clarity of how the King died:
O, my offence is rank it 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:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?
Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
Though we have, at this moment, proof that Hamlet is ‘justified’ in his path of revenge, we also have a very Shakespearean added dimension to Claudius’ character. Claudius is not the typical villain in an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. There is no maniacal laughter, there is no evil grinning at the audience and proud justification of his actions. No, Claudius is wracked with grief and guilt. He articulates this guilt to the audience masterfully, and almost inspires empathy and understanding for the onlookers. What’s most important, perhaps, is the love for Gertrude which he conveys in this soliloquy.
There is so much evidence in the play which must be considered by the actor playing Claudius. Where does he sit on the spectrum of cruelty and kindness? What is the nature of his relationship with Gertrude, is it true and compassionate love?
In this speech in Act 1, Scene 2, the audience will witness all of the life which the actor has created in Claudius at this moment. We will see flares of a number of different traits – there is most certainly cruelty, but there is also reason and perhaps even kindness and empathy.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare has portrayed a group of modern humans. There are not characters of two dimensions, but complex and three dimensional beings capable of inconsistencies, hypocrisy and surprising behaviour. As the actor playing Claudius, allow for this complexity to shine through your performance. Build the character with evidence from the play, and then ground his words and actions in truth, intention and objective. The moment of confession from Claudius does and should come as a surprise and revelation to the audience: allow for the potential that Hamlet has been misled, and Claudius could actually be the honorable King he is trying to present himself as.