After discovering that his uncle Claudius killed his father, Hamlet exclaims,“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain!” Shakespeare’s works often explore the theme of appearance versus reality, and the Tragedy of Hamlet is no exception. Claudius discovers just how difficult it is to conceal the truth. After all, “Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak. Augurs and understood relations have By magot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth The secret’st man of blood.”
Claudius first arrives on stage as the newly crowned King of Denmark. He expresses to the Royal Court his conflicting feelings of grief and joy – grief over his brother’s recent death and joy arising from his recent marriage to Queen Gertrude, who is the widow of his dead brother. Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude is highly suspicious. Remarking on the near incestuous relationship, Hamlet states: “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”
In a subsequent scene, the dead King’s spirit reveals to Hamlet that Claudius killed him by pouring poison into his ear while he slept in an orchard. The murder’s imagery resonates throughout the play. Just as Claudius poured poison into the dead King’s ear, he pours another type of poison – lies and deceit – into the ears of everyone else.
Despite the revelation from the ghost of his father, Hamlet is still uncertain about whether Claudius killed his father. Hamlet fears that the spirit he conversed with might be a devil sent from hell to damn him. Therefore, he decides to stage a play resembling the murder in the orchard, reasoning that if Claudius killed his father, then Claudius will disclose his dark secret either explicitly or by some involuntary sign.
During Hamlet’s play called “The Mousetrap,” Claudius experiences pangs of guilt, and retreats to a private room where he contemplates the murder. He thinks that, in this world, “the wicked prize oft buys out the law.” Criminals can bribe legal authorities with the riches obtained from their crimes. However, he realizes that he cannot deceive Heaven. Eventually he must directly answer for his action. He prays to God for mercy, but he concludes that “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts, never to Heaven go.” Rather than sincerely repent and seek redemption, he resigns himself to the belief that he will never be worthy of forgiveness or mercy in Heaven.
Feeling utter despair at the thought of attaining salvation for his crime, Claudius hardens his heart, and decides to kill Hamlet. Like Richard III, he concludes that he is “so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.”
While Claudius plans to kill Hamlet, Queen Gertrude summons Hamlet to her room. Hamlet enters the room and immediately chastises his mother for marrying Claudius. He commands his mother never to sleep with Claudius again. A meddlesome courtier named Polonius, who is hiding behind an arras and listening to Hamlet’s tirade, cries out for help because he believes that Hamlet intends to kill Gertrude. But Hamlet thrusts a sword through the arras, killing Polonius instead.
Fortunately for Claudius, this accidental murder of Polonius provides a justification for sending Hamlet to England. Claudius pretends to send Hamlet to England for Hamlet’s own safety. Claudius sends a concealed letter to the King of England, ordering him to kill Hamlet, “no shriving time allowed.”
While sailing to England, Hamlet manages to escape and return to Denmark. Still determined to be rid of Hamlet, Claudius arranges a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, who is the son of Polonius and is bent to avenge his father’s death by killing Hamlet. During the duel, Claudius intends to slip a poisonous pearl into a cup of wine and offer it to Hamlet should Laertes’ poison-tipped foil fail to kill him.
Until the very end, Claudius employs deceit to mislead everyone about his malicious purposes. He wagers on Hamlet to win the duel, and toasts to Hamlet’s success in the first two passes of the duel. However, Claudius’ plan is ultimately thwarted when Gertrude drinks the poison, and Laertes discloses Claudius’ treachery. Hamlet wounds Claudius with the poison-tipped foil, and compels him to drink the rest of the poison.
Claudius ought to have heeded the advice given by Polonius to Laertes in the beginning of the play: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Instead, Claudius descends further into duplicity as the play progresses, and discovers in the end that dishonesty is inadequate to save his crown, his Queen, his life, and his soul.