Act I - Scene.ii
Claudius, the dead King’s brother, and new King of
Denmark enters his stateroom with his wife Gertrude, and the whole court entourage, which includes Prince Hamlet; Polonius the Lord Chamberlain, and his son Laertes; and the two Ambassadors to Norway, Volternand and
Cornelius. Claudius announces that Norway would view Denmark’s long mourning for the dead King as a sign of weakness, so he has assumed the throne and married Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow, so that Denmark can
be strong against the impending invasion.
Claudius sends the Norwegian Ambassadors to Fortinbras’ uncle informing him
that Fortinbras intends to invade Denmark and he hopes he can avoid war.
Laertes asks permission of King Claudius to return to his school in France,
which is granted.
Both the King and Queen are concerned at Hamlet’s continuing depression, and
they encourage him to cease his grieving and put it behind him. Hamlet criticizes them for just pretending to grieve over the death of Hamlet’s father. He insists that his grief is no sham, but is
Claudius reminds him that he is heir to his throne and requests that he does
not return to his school in German, which Gertrude supports. Hamlet agrees.
Here follows Hamlet’s first soliloquy in which he moans at having been born,
saying ‘melt, thaw and resolve itself into dew’.
Of course to even consider suicide is a cardinal sin, and Hamlet only wishes suicide because he cannot continue to watch his mother involved in her vile incest with his uncle. He is tormented by these thoughts and is unable to share them with anyone.
Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo come to Hamlet to tell him about the ghost
they have seen. He agrees to watch that night in case the ghost walks again.
The audience may be surprised at the aggressive
Claudius, who is clearly going to be Hamlet’s chief adversary. Claudius very quickly tries to exert control over the young Hamlet, and to some extent, Hamlet appears subservient.
King Claudius and Gertrude wish Hamlet to forget about his dead father, but he responds by saying that his grief is true for him.
We have a clear insight into Claudius’ character. He is scheming and
uses his words carefully.
He is always careful regarding his appearance and carefully chooses his words, e.g. he refers to Gertrude as ‘our sometime sister, now our Queen, the imperial jointress to this warlike state’. When he addresses Hamlet he calls him ‘cousin Hamlet and my son’. These terms show that he has considered his relationship to the state, to Gertrude, and finally to Hamlet in such a way to cover all the ways that people might perceive them.
Claudius has answers for all the actions he has taken.
It was necessary to quickly marry his sister-in-law Gertrude, fewer than two months after the death of King Hamlet so that the country remains stable. He accuses Hamlet of ‘impious stubbornness’ with a view to exerting power over the younger man as well as Denmark. He suggests that Hamlet has shown that he is inadequate to be a King as the responsibilities would be too heavy for him, thus justifying his own ascension to his dead brother’s throne, which should clearly have passed to Hamlet. To reinforce Claudius’ power over Hamlet, he calls him ‘my cousin and my son’.
Another factor tormenting Hamlet is the incest between Claudius and
Gertrude. Although in this day and age this is not regarded as incest, sexual intimacy between a brother and sister-in-law, in Elizabethan England was.
At the time of writing Hamlet, the laws had only just been changed, and here we see Shakespeare voicing his own Roman Catholic views by stating that this relationship is incest. Hamlet clearly blames Claudius for the seduction of his mother, who he merely mistrusts.
The reader views Gertrude at this stage of the play as an innocent party,
and she only appears concerned about the happiness of Hamlet. She asks him to stay and be a dutiful son. Her naivety is in stark contrast to Claudius who is a cold, calculating man.
Clearly Hamlet is hurt by Gertrude and Claudius’ callousness towards the
death of his father, which is compounded by the fact that they pretended to grieve.
Hamlet views Claudius as a satyr (goat), whereas he sees his father as Hyperion, the Sun God, and asks how he can trust a woman who would replace a God with a goat.
Hamlet is intrigued by the news that a ghost has been sighted on the
battlements. He wonders if the ghost is honest, or sent by the devil.
Horatio advises that the ghost appeared mournful, which supports belief that
the ghost will be a true spirit reinforcing his belief that there has been some foul play.