Thoth Tarot (Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris): Death
(image used by permission of the Ordo Templis Orientis, Secretary General/ International Headquarters,
[NOTE: If you haven't already read the disclaimer on this section's introductory page with regard to any and all actor names mentioned in this section of the website, please do so before proceeding here.]
"Wait a minute," I hear you say. "The Devil? What happened to what you told us earlier, in your general remarks on this tragedy's characters ... the King as an archetype, and all that? And doesn't Shakespeare himself identify Claudius as the King, too?"
Yes, of course; but then, what else is he supposed to do? Claudius is the King – formally speaking. But does that really characterise him in full? And what about Hamlet's father, Claudius's own brother, the man he murdered to become King in the first place? Shouldn't he be the King?
"Well, apparently not," you respond. "You just told us that he's the Ghost ... the representative of the unnatural and the inverted world."
Uh-huh. So he is. But how came he there? – Exactly.
And quite apart from that: Remember that I also said that the Players appearing in the mid-tragedy "play within the play" represent, on an even further removed, symbolic level, the main tragedy's principals? Well, now: In that "play within the play," who is the First Player, or the Player King? – Yeah. See what I mean? – And what's the Poisoner's name? Lucianus. – Bingo.
So: Claudius – the Devil; by Shakespeare's own, express designation, it seems to me. But even if you don't buy into that kind of shorthand symbolism, I think it's still apparent enough from the totality of the information we're given about him.
At the risk of beating a horse that, by now, is definitely breathing out of the last little cavities of its lung, for introductory purposes you might want to revisit the chapters on Hamlet's World and Prince Hamlet's character himself, where I'm laying out at considerable length why I think Denmark under King Claudius is indeed hell on earth; or in a more modern abstraction, synonymous with a country governed by a despot, or any place where democracy, justice and human rights are trodden on. Since Claudius is not only the ruler of this God-forsaken place but also the person who brought it into that state initially, in my view that makes him a prime candidate for the part of the Dark Lord.
"But, but ..." someone insists, a bit tentatively but also very stubbornly. "Shakespeare doesn't talk about concentration camps ... or any kind of inhumane prisoner camps, for that matter. Or about anybody being whipped or tortured on Claudius's orders. Or about false arrests. Or people being overtaxed. Or any other act that would indicate a harsh and profoundly unjust rule. The only person Claudius seems to be going after is Hamlet. Sure, we're given to understand that he's afraid Hamlet has sniffed out his dirty little secret, but wouldn't many an ordinary murderer try to get rid of someone like Hamlet, too? How does that make Claudius the Devil?
Well, Gee Whiz, now, let me see. For starters, and even leaving aside my beloved little quote about that "time [that's] out of joint," Claudius has, in the space of a few short months, as his nephew the Prince so succinctly puts it, "kill'd [Hamlet's] King, and whor'd [his] mother; popp'd in between th' election and [his] hopes; [and] thrown out his angle for [Hamlet's] proper life." Not a very promising beginning for a just and equitable reign, is it? More the behaviour of a ruler who'll stoop to anything to get his way, and who certainly couldn't care less about his people's fate, either. And lo'n behold, what happens when Laertes returns from France, at the end of those same few months? Why, already there's a public outcry for someone else; and for none other than the young, valiant representative of the country's other leading family, that of Polonius, whom by the way – and to the public's great displeasure and distrust – Claudius has had buried "but greenly in hugger-mugger," in an "obscure funeral [without] trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones, no noble rite nor formal ostentation," wherefore vox populi now "call [his son Laertes] lord; and, as the world were now but to begin ... they cry 'Choose we! Laertes shall be King!' Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds, 'Laertes shall be King! Laertes King!'"
Now, as outlined in greater detail in the chapter on Hamlet's World, Shakespeare here may well have drawn on the events surrounding Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex's unlicensed premature return from Ireland and his subsequent rebellion against an aging Queen Elizabeth I, which ended with his trial for treason and subsequent execution in early 1601, the same year that "Hamlet" was (probably) written; or on Henry Bolingbroke's (the later King Henry IV's) rebellion against King Richard II, which in final consequence not only brought about the devastations of the War of the Roses but also, a few centuries later, the Bard's own quintessential rebellion play, "Richard II." Thus, even before Robert Cromwell's Lord Protectorship, the English public was certainly aware of events like those alluded to here. But whatever was or was not behind the story of Elizabeth and Essex (which to this day is as much subject to speculation as the "Virgin Queen's" relationship with "Sweet Lord Robert" Dudley), or behind the probably pro-Catholic Bard's association with Essex and, later, with the Gunpowder Plotters: Given everything that, by the time of Laertes's return to Elsinore, we have learned about our man Claudius, are we really to assume that Laertes's followers are all just political opportunists trying to capitalise on a volatile situation at court? I think it's much more likely that Polonius's son really can draw on substantial popular support, which to me does suggest that already there is growing unrest over Claudius's reign – fueled no doubt by the way Claudius has handled Polonius's burial; and moreover by the fact that popular Prince Hamlet has been sent away, allegedly because he is mad – and Claudius is only too well aware of "the great love the general gender bear [Hamlet], who ... would convert his gives to graces," wherefore Claudius dare not openly proceed against the Prince in the first place. (I also happen to think that it's just possible Hamlet himself comments on Claudius's style of government in "To be, or not to be," but I'll leave that for the soliloquy page in question).
And for all his Macchiavellian scheming and ruthless ambition, Claudius's strong suit is conspiracy, not open confrontation. The guy is a charmer, a conjurer; not a butcher; cunning, not boorish and openly brutal. We see this not only in the way he handles "the Hamlet problem" from the start and in the quick payoff of his traps for Gertrude and Polonius; it's also apparent in his readiness to accede to any sneaky little plot that the seasoned old politician Polonius comes up with, and then in particular in the way he turns the straighforward but impetuous Laertes from a challenger and a danger to his throne into his foremost tool, set against none other than Laertes's own childhood friend, Prince Hamlet. Now there's a masterstroke of poisoning someone else's brain if I ever saw one! As indeed, poisoning is Claudius's method of choice not only in his smooth, venomous talk but also in actually killing (first Hamlet's father, his own brother, by hebona [the juice either of a poisonous weed or of ebony, which was likewise considered deadly]; and later also Hamlet himself, by way of an "unbated and envenom'd" sword and a poisoned pearl). And in what animal's form do we first see Lucifer, or Satan, in the bible? A snake. Granted, that could theoretically mean a Boa Constrictor, who strangles rather than poisons his victims. But we all know that it doesn't.
In fact, Shakespeare's imagery could hardly be any more obvious here in my view. For during one of the play's first truly pivotal moments – Hamlet's encounter with his father's Ghost – how does the murdered King describe Claudius's act? Let's listen in: "'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me. ... But know, thou noble youth, the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown." And just for emphasis and in case someone did miss the point in that earlier scene, a little later Claudius himself confirms whom we see when we are looking at him, and he, too, does so at a pivotal moment; mere seconds before the beginning of the mid-tragedy's build-up of tension. When immediately before "To be, or not to be" and Hamlet's and Ophelia's subsequent exchange ("Get thee to a nunnery"), which Polonius and Claudius will secretly be overhearing, Polonius remarks (maybe to Ophelia, although as I suspect actually more to himself) that "'Tis too much prov'd, that with devotion's visage and pious action we do sugar o'er the Devil himself," how does Claudius respond? "O, 'tis too true! How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!"
"Well, yes," someone else now objects. "But doesn't he conclude that comment with the words, 'O heavy burthen!'? Would the Devil be burdened by a little murder?" "Yeah," another person chimes in. "And isn't Claudius really saying there that he thinks he himself has smoothed over the Devil with his cunning disguise?" "Besides, what about that scene after the 'play within the play' where he actually does pray?" inquires a third guy. "Sounds to me he's wrestling with his conscience in a pretty heavy way there, isn't he?"
Why, look you now, what have we here? The Devil's Disciples? Does that mean I'll have to have a third of my audience checked for club feet, goat's hooves, hunchbacks, clawed hands, black marks, and other such telltale signs? (Speaking of which, could someone please go and collect all those broom sticks in the parking lot and toss them? They're beginning to take up just a tad too much space. Thanks.) Tsk, tsk, tsk. Well, folks, I'll keep it brief on this particular page; Claudius's twelve rounds against his conscience (or what passes therefore), as well as the associated symbolism pointing to his true identity is addressed in greater detail on the corresponding soliloquy page. Here I'll just remind you that he even has trouble kneeling down in piety, which to me doesn't look very promising at all in terms of salvation, and that his [cough] prayer ends with the words "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go."
I rest my case ...
Now, as far as casting goes – with that interpretation of Claudius's role, who better to play him than Sir Ian McKellen; in fact, who but Sir Ian to play him at all? Derek Jacobi's take on the part is a great one and the only one that makes sense in Branagh's glamorous movie; and I also have tremendous admiration for Alan Bates's very ruthless and cunning Claudius in Franco Zeffirelli's film. But here as always in the Bard's world (and not only there: in my humble opinion, McKellen's Chauvelin, for example, is also the single best thing about that overall splendid "Scarlet Pimpernel" adaptation starring Anthony Andrews in the title role) you just haven't seen a bottomless black soul until you've seen Sir Ian's interpretation of the character in question. And to quell all those "Gandalf" whispers coming from the back rows right here and now: Guys, Gandalf is such a powerful force for good for one reason, and one reason only. He hasn't just looked evil – and all-consuming evil at that – in the face; he's wrestled it down and has himself almost been destroyed in the process. Only because he understands exactly what evil is, and because he has overcome its terrible, destructive force, can he be so eminently wise and good. And somehow it seems to me that's true for the actor as well as for the character. Because judging by whatever interviews I have seen with the man, as a person Sir Ian surely couldn't be any further removed from those villains he understands and portrays so well; and I'd rather not ask where he has to go to find them in the first place.
"Alright, fine ... but 'been there, done that,'" someone shrugs. "You yourself keep saying how much you admire his 'Richard III.' And his 'Macbeth,' too. Do you really think after those performances he could possibly have any incentive to play the Devil in yet another Shakespeare screen adaptation, especially in a part whose lines he can probably also recite in his sleep anyway?"
No, not a jot. I'm not self-delusional. Still, this movie, if it were ever made, just wouldn't be the same without him. And that's not even mentioning the fact that I can't think of many people with a greater insight into all things Shakespeare to begin with, and to whom I would therefore rather turn to for advice: not only for his encyclopedic knowledge, shrewdness and innate understanding, but also because I think that his obvious love of the theatre, and of the Bard's plays in particular, cannot help but transmit itself onto others and inspire them in turn.
So. Claudius – the Devil – Sir Ian McKellen. I dare damnation ...
Copyright 2002 – 2009: Ulrike Böhm, all rights reserved.