Claudius, Old Hamlet and Polonius are all fathers and the way in which each is presented by Shakespeare is quite different. On the surface, the play is a revenge tragedy in which a grieving son seeks to avenge the death of his murdered father. However I think it has been very cleverly crafted by Shakespeare around a bleak theme of appearance versus reality that explores the corrupt, sinister region of the human nature that is present beneath the surface of us all. Shakespeare’s portrayal of many of the characters in the play and in particular of fathers is as both malevolent and egotistical.
Claudius’ hypocrisy masquerades as fatherly love and concern; Polonius’ obsequiousness and search for position masquerades as service to the King, using his daughter as a pawn in the process; Old Hamlet’s torment and manipulation of Hamlet’s emotions is passed off as regaining his honour. On the surface fathers are presented by Shakespeare as having to be loved, honoured and obeyed almost without question. However the effect this has on their children is quite catastrophic leading to resentment, repression, bitterness, madness and eventually death.
I will examine the way each of these characters is presented with close reference to Act 1 Scene II (Claudius), Act 1 Scene V (Old Hamlet) and Act 1 Sc. III (Polonius). Claudius, the newly crowned King of Denmark and uncle to Hamlet, assumes the role of Hamlet’s stepfather after marrying Gertrude following the death of old Hamlet. He takes on this role very early on in the play when he publicly announces his love for Hamlet in Act 1 Sc. II: And with no less nobility of love Than that which dearest father bears his son do I impart toward you. (I. ii. 10-12)
Hamlet is very resentful toward Claudius because of his lack of mourning for the death of Old Hamlet and his hasty marriage to Gertrude “A little more than kin and less than kind. ” This use of play on words in Hamlet’s first line of the play reveals his bitter frame of mind. Claudius is no longer a mere relative but his father and Hamlet is not kindly disposed toward him. Claudius on the other hand, seems more than willing to adopt the role as his new father. On the surface, he is presented as a loving father but hints of duplicity become apparent in later scenes.
He is aware of Hamlet’s popularity and is perhaps trying to exert some control over him as well as win the favour of his people and wife. In the Lawrence Olivier filmed interpretation of the play it is only after Gertrude expresses concern for Hamlet’s well-being that a change in his attitude becomes apparent. At this stage of the play, the audience is unaware of Claudius’ devious and self-centred nature and so it is difficult to establish if he is sincere in his affection toward Hamlet.
He is aware of Hamlet’s power to form a faction against the King because of his popularity and throughout the speech in which he talks to him, he must choose his words carefully so as not to provoke him further. He is also rather forceful in this speech and tries to persuade Hamlet not to leave for Germany, away from his prying eyes: And we beseech you, bend you to remain Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye, Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son. (I. ii. 15-17)
This is intended by Claudius to comfort Hamlet, encourage him to stay, and emphasise the point that he will be held with the greatest respect as a noble, cherished as a kinsman and loved as a son. However it could also be taken to have a very different, more sinister connotation; he would be able to constantly watch Hamlet for any treacherous behaviour. Shakespeare’s use of language in Claudius’ speech makes his words seem persuasive and cajoling, trying to make Hamlet come out of his mourning and turn to support his new father.
He speaks smoothly using assonant sounds, “Survivor bound in filial obligation” and “Throw to earth this unprevailing woe”. Shakespeare uses imagery of thunder and a cannon, however, to reflect Claudius’ joy at Hamlet’s affirmative answer; these are not particularly joyous sounds of revelry which denotes he has some ulterior motive. Imagery of disease and decay used in Hamlet’s speech, “An unweeded garden that goes to seed”, helps to suggest he may have a sense of his step-father’s hypocrisy. Old Hamlet appears to Hamlet several times throughout the play, in spirit form.
The audience do not actually see him in life and it is therefore difficult to judge what sort of a character he is as there is no real evidence he is not from hell “The spirit I have seen may be the devil. ” Shakespeare presents Old Hamlet and Claudius differently and Hamlet’s actual father is portrayed in a much better light than his hypocritical step-father drawing a distinction between fathers and step-fathers. Hamlet draws several comparisons between Claudius and Old Hamlet. His first soliloquy is studded with imagery “So excellent a King, that was, to this, Hyperion to a satyr.
” This is an interesting contrast; he sees Claudius as a satyr, a Greek mythological beast that loved to indulge in all kinds of sensual pleasures in comparison to his father who he describes as the Titan Hyperion, father of the sun, the moon and the dawn. He is as far from his brother as Hamlet is from Hercules “My father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules ! ” Clearly Old Hamlet is presented in a far better light by Shakespeare and the audience feels more sympathetic towards him. It is easier to understand why Hamlet reacts to him as he does.