Two powerful forces of storytelling operate in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ambiguity and contradiction. For the first three acts of this play the audience has been going along for the ride with Hamlet, wondering whether or not the ghost inciting his revenge is “a spirit of health or goblin damned”. This question brings about the ambiguity of Hamlet’s character; is what he has seen really the ghost of his father? Is his madness feigned or real? Has Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, really murdered Hamlet’s father, or is Hamlet driven wild with imagination?
Claudius, this far into the play, has been presented as a fairly stable character. Shakespearian scholar Harold Bloom commends Claudius’ politics, and remarks that he is in fact a terrific leader. The play is turned on its head in Act 3, scene 3, however. Ambiguity is burnt away and the truth is momentarily revealed to the audience as Claudius confesses his guilt to them. Hamlet has been told the truth by the ghost. Claudius is in fact responsible for the murder of his Father, and in this speech we see how deep his guilt and angst goes.
As with any monologue, it’s best to read the play in its entirety to understand the context behind it. For simplicity’s sake, however, here are the vital pieces of information you need to know to be able to understand and start your work on this monologue.
Firstly, this confession has come as a result of Hamlet’s plan to ‘catch the conscience of the King’ by performing a play depicting the scene of the murder of Hamlet’s father. The Mousetrap was the name Hamlet gave to the play, and in its final moments the murderer character Lucianus pours poison into King Gonzalo’s ear, (the very same way Hamlet’s Father was murdered in his Orchard). This depiction shocks Claudius, causing him to get up out of his chair and storm out of the room, calling for light.
The horror of the depicted scene sends Claudius into a flurry of action: deciding to immediately ship Hamlet off to England for execution. After this flurry of activity Claudius is left alone by his attendants and advisors, and from him erupts this desperate confession to the audience.
It’s also worth noting that this confession is in fact a reveal to the audience. The only other glimmer of a confession we have heard from Claudius was a few scenes prior leading into the ‘nunnery scene’ between Hamlet and Ophelia. In this moment Claudius shares an aside with the audience, stating, “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience” and a moment from Polonius about the devil and corruption. Apart from that small aside, this confession is a revolution for the audience’s perspective of several of the characters in the play, including Claudius, Hamlet and Gertrude.
Let’s look at the text.
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
And like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. 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? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
– To be forestalled ere we come to fall
Or pardoned being down? 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 possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my Queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but ’tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can – what can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?
O wretched state, O bosom black as death,
O limed soul that struggling to be free
Art more engaged. Help, angels, make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe.
All may be well.
Primal eldest curse: Biblical reference to the story of Cain and Able
Visage: a person’s face, with reference to the form or proportions of the features.
Twofold: having two parts or elements.
Forestalled: prevent or obstruct (an anticipated event or action) by taking advance action.
Sinews: a piece of tough fibrous tissue uniting muscle to bone; a tendon or ligament.
Oh, my crime is festering and rotten, it’s smell reaches up to heaven.
My crime has the curse of Cain on it. A brother’s murder.
I can’t pray, even though I desperately want to, the strength of my guilt defeats the strength of my intention.
And, like someone who can’t decide which of two actions to make, I stand here unable to do anything.
So if I am guilty of this crime, is there not enough forgiveness in the heavens to make me free of it?
Isn’t that what God’s mercy is for?
And doesn’t praying do two things at once? Prevent us from sinning in the first place and pardon us when we repent?
If this is the case, I’ll look to the heavens. My fault is in the past.
Oh, but what type of prayer can save me now?
“Forgive me for my foul murder”?
I can’t ask that, because I am still benefitting from the things I did the murder for:
My crown, my ambition and my queen.
Can I be pardoned and keep those benefits?
In this corrupted world it is possible to avoid justice through bribery with the rewards of the crime.
But this isn’t the case in heaven. There is no corruption there.
Up there all our crimes are judged exactly as they are worth.
So what can I do? What is there left for me to do? I will see what repentance can do for me.
What can’t it do? Yet what can it do when I cannot repent?
Oh what a dismal situation I’m in. My heart is as black as death.
My soul is so fused with sin that even as it struggles to be free it increases its bindings.
Help, angels! Make an effort here!
Bow, you stubborn knees, and my heart – as strong and stubborn as steel be soft as a newborn baby.
Let’s hope everything will be ok.
As we have already noted, Claudius is a good politician. To play him as the evil vice-like villain of this story would be to diminish his sophistication. He’s not sitting on his throne with his fingers lightly touching whispering “Excellent” like a Shakespearean Mr. Burns. As Shakespeare does wonderfully, this soliloquy allows us to both condemn and empathise with Claudius’ situation. The audience now has clarity: he did in fact murder Hamlet’s Father. Right. So by the laws of the story, being a revenge tragedy, he is doomed to die. But in the same way that Shakespeare messes with the role of the true revenge hero in Hamlet, so too does he with Claudius. He is repentant. He feels guilt. He also alludes to one of his motives being the love he had for Gertrude, now his queen. None of these factors excuse Claudius’ heinous actions, but to condemn him as an actor playing him is to risk oversimplification of the role and soliloquy.
This is a soliloquy at it’s finest. Claudius until now has had little to no private connection with the audience, and just like a real confession Claudius responds to his moment of isolation and privacy with the audience with an outpouring. This soliloquy needs to erupt from him like a leak in a pressurised canister.
What’s also worth noting about this speech is what Caludius’ primary concern is. Interestingly, Claudius does not seem to be concerned with the fact that Hamlet (or one of the Players) knows in accurate detail how King Hamlet was murdered. Instead, Claudius confesses primarily his guilt and inability to repent through prayer in his soliloquy.
This soliloquy is nothing without the actors’ clear and powerfully pursued objective. Claudius needs to repent. He needs to be alleviated from the guilt that he feels but he is drowning in the obstacles which prevent him attaining that. As an actor, the objective and factors outside the body and mind are the key to unlocking this soliloquy. Though Claudius is trying to free himself from what he is experiencing internally, it is what lies outside of Claudius where he searches for the answer. The actor runs a risk when this speech becomes too introspective. To use Declan Donnellan’s terminology – look at the amount of Targets which exist for Claudius: The audience, God, Heaven, The memory and guilt of his offence, his position, his Queen, Angels, even his stubborn knees. Each of these factors exist outside the mind for Claudius and so too should they for the actor. In each of those targets is a wellspring of energy to be tapped into.
Shakespeare was a visionary when it came to writing ‘three dimensional’ characters; characters who are flawed, contradictory and ambiguous. Though Claudius may not be as three dimensional as Hamlet, or at least as well explored in speech and text as Hamlet, he too is one of these three dimensional figures. He is both strong and weak, powerful and helpless, noble and villainous. The task and joy for the actor is to embrace these contradictions and breathe life into them for the audience to witness and pass judgement upon. Like all villainous characters, we must resist the temptation to condemn them ourselves (as actors). To do this is to restrict our ability to access and understand the motives and truths of the character, which are all crucial for our ability to play them on stage.