Being King and Being Father: Claudius and Lear

December 9, 2020 by Essay Writer

In an excerpt from Sir Robert Filmer’s The Natural Power of Kings, the defined paternal positions of father and king are inextricably synonymous. In the periods in which William Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and King Lear both occur, usurper of the throne Claudius and the psychologically waning Lear are both expected to engage in and practice these familial obligations: “As the father over one family, so the king as father over many families extends his care to preserve, feed, clothe, instruct, and defend the whole commonwealth” (McDonald, 284-85). While Claudius fails to preserve his paternal obligations to Hamlet and Gertrude by placing his own desires and ambition ahead of his inherited responsibilities, he does succeed politically in securing the safety of the state of Denmark by defeating England and peacefully evading war with Norway—but Lear falls even shorter that Claudius in his duties: he fails to act as a fatherly figure to his loving and loyal daughter Cordelia, he curses sterility upon later heirs, and fails to provide for the citizens of Britain by regarding nothing to be more important than his own apparent self-interest.

When it comes to Hamlet especially, Claudius evades his obligation to serve and protect his departed brother’s son. As we first encounter Claudius in 1.2, he immediately fosters a discourse of distemper and ridicule by telling Hamlet that his mourning for his deceased father is “unmanly grief” (Hamlet 1.2.94). To follow up his sexist comment, he further insults his nephew by saying: “It shows a will most incorrect to heaven…An understanding simple and unschooled” (Hamlet 1.2.95,97). Scorning one’s own family by saying that they are ‘acting like a woman’ and that the sorrow they feel for another family member’s death is even condemned by the God(s) in heaven cannot be construed as an act of compassion or goodwill. Claudius’s speech towards Hamlet is a direct insult to both he and the king’s obligation to justly serve and protect the interests of those closest to him.

Once the ghost of King Hamlet informs his son of Claudius’s regicidal act, Hamlet responds by playing a role of lunacy. Claudius, fretting as to the motive of Hamlet’s sudden evolution, sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather / So much as from occasion you may glean” (Hamlet 2.2.15-16). On the surface this may appear to be an act of familial concern for his nephew’s well-being, but just as Hamlet is playing a role, so is Claudius. Continually throughout the play, Claudius affords a front of compassion only when Gertrude and others are present. His real commitments are not to the mental clarity of young Hamlet’s mind, but to the furthering of his own fortunes and to increasing the frequency of visits to his incestial bed. As Claudius himself cries out in 3.3, his reasons for usurping the throne are not to better the lives of his brother’s family, but for “My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen” (Hamlet 3.3.55). So when Claudius says “To draw him onto pleasures” (Hamlet 2.2.15), this is a front of compassionate speech aimed at specifically pleasing Queen Gertrude; his following line, “to gather / So much as from occasion you may glean” (Hamlet 2.2.15-16) also appeals to the Queen’s concern for her son, but it overtly reflects Claudius’s own fears and anxieties that the raving Hamlet could upset his newly acquired kingdom.

Claudius consistently pretends to have this kind of compassion for Hamlet in order to appease his Queen, but when she is not present he plots out how to justify sending Hamlet away to England, and later with Laertes on how to successfully and permanently dispatch of him. But with so much overwhelming evidence portraying Claudius’s commitment to Hamlet and Gertrude as subversive, self-interested and disingenuous, it is quite easy to overlook the political impact of King Claudius’s reign over the state of Denmark.

In Claudius’s first speech of the play in 1.2 he immediately establishes a commitment of state before family. He acknowledges his brother’s death and brandishes him as a once “valiant” being, but he then quickly moves on to address the problem of the young Norwegian Fortinbras who is planning an attack on Denmark. He gives his messengers Voltimand and Cornelius strict orders, giving them “no personal power / To business with the King more than the scope” of his letters commandments (Hamlet 1.2.36-37). Instead of basking in reflection over his brother’s death and Hamlet’s grief, he places his responsibility to the security of the general public on a higher pedestal than that of his responsibility to his own family’s well-being. As a result of Claudius’s diplomatic efforts, the King of Norway thwarts his young nephew’s plans of an attack on Denmark and Norway thus agrees to obey King Claudius’s will.

Not only does Claudius successfully use his sovereign power to foil a Norwegian war on the people of Denmark, but he also leads them to a victory over England that provides them with benefits. Claudius alludes to this victory in 4.3 as he says, “Since yet thy cicatrice looks raw and red / After the Danish sword, and thy free awe / Pays homage to us—“ (Hamlet 4.3.64-66); the scar being “raw and red” implies that the war was recent and waged under his rule, and now the English must in turn both serve and pay reverence to the power of the king and the people of Denmark. This victory is another win politically for the state of Denmark under the rule of Claudius.

While Claudius may fail in family but succeed politically as a sovereign ruler, King Lear affords no such victories on either front. He begins the play in 1.1 with a blatant disregard for both the interest of his daughters and the kingdom of Britain by dividing the country into sections for inheritance based on a false love-show that he himself concocts in order to stroke his own ego. But when his only loyal daughter Cordelia refuses to join-into the game of shameful deceit with her sisters Regan and Goneril, Lear denounces and banishes Cordelia, saying: “for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (Lear 1.1.266-269). The ever-faithful Earl of Kent attempts to peacefully interject to Lear’s brash denouncing of Cordelia, but Lear then banishes Kent as well, calling him a “vassal” and a “miscreant”, threatening to kill him if he not disappear from the land within ten days (Lear 1.1.164-181).

Lear’s banishing and scornful remarks directed at Cordelia and Kent must be construed as unfulfilling his paternal duties to his daughter as well as not looking out for the apparent interests of Britain as a whole. As we find out later, Goneril and Regan have no love for their father and they show it on multiple occasions by putting him out in the rain and plotting his death. But it is Cordelia who is proved to be humble, grateful, and full of compassion despite her father’s actions towards her—but Lear does not extend his care to Cordelia, solely because she does not wish to take part in the artificial show to bid for his favors. His egotism and self-interest also get the better of him as he banishes Kent shortly there afterwards upon the grounds that Kent gives a truthful and heartfelt plea for Lear to see reason and reconsider his actions.

Lear’s unjust actions do not just have negative effects upon Cordelia and Kent either. As he banishes Cordelia and refuses to endow her with any portion of his kingdom, it is then Regan and Goneril who inherit the northern and southwestern regions of Britain. Regan and Goneril are already shown to be fighting and competing in 1.1 for their father’s fortunes, and they quickly bring their rivalry to their newly acquired kingdoms. It is Lear who fails to care or acknowledge what this splitting of his kingdom might do to the state of Britain and its citizens as a whole. As he transfers his sovereign power to Regan and Goneril, the regime change makes an opening for France. Almost as soon as Lear’s girls are in control, the troops from France are on the edges of England and beginning to invade. It is precisely because of Lear’s ego, temper, short sidedness, and lack of concern for anyone else but himself in the opening of the play that the lives and safety of the citizens of Britain are put into jeopardy.

Lear again lets his own self-interest dictate his decisions in 1.4 after Goneril asks her father to remove the hundred armed knights from her home, which is beginning to make the atmosphere “more like a tavern or a brothel / Than a graced palace” (Lear 1.4.242-243). The King explodes in a fit of fury upon Goneril, cursing: “Into her womb convey sterility; / Dry up in her the organs of increase, / And from her derogate body never spring / A babe to honor her!” (Lear 1.4.277-280). Out of his rage, Lear fails to consider his daughter’s and Albany’s personal interests of one day having a family, and he also fails to regard the future state of Britain with his curse as well. By wishing sterility upon Goneril, this would mean that Lear’s line of kingship would cease to pass on. For as he appropriated a section of land to Albany and Goneril, it would be their child who would one day inherit and rule over the land endowed to him/her. But Lear fails to take this into consideration and instead neglects his fatherly duties to his family and state by being a slave to his own blind rage.

It is some time before Lear finally realizes that he has wronged Cordelia, and even longer before he admits to forgetting his duty to his subjects in 3.4. Seeing the poverty stricken state of his peers as they enter the hovel, Lear cries out: “Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you / From season such as these? Oh, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!” (Lear 3.4.31-33). But by the time Lear manages to make this grave assessment of his citizens, it is too late, and his authority as king is no longer respected by the majority of those in Britain.

King Claudius and King Lear both fail to fulfill their paternalistic duties to their immediate families. As Claudius lies to Gertrude and plots to kill Hamlet to further his own empire, Lear banishes his only seemingly pure and faithful daughter as a result of his overbearing egotism. But although Claudius does not succeed in his commitments to his wife and nephew, he does politically achieve to lead the citizens of Denmark to victory against England, as well as protect them from invasion by the Norwegian Fortinbras. It is then only King Lear who proves to be fully unfit for the crown—not only neglecting, scorning, and unrightfully banishing his most faithful daughter and followers, but by being ineffective in his duty to securing ‘protection, food, clothing, instruction, and defense for the whole commonwealth’ (McDonald, 284-85).

Works Cited

McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents_. Second Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Bevington, David. Sixth Edition. The University of Chicago: Pearson Education, Inc, 2009.

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