Hamlet Characters: Shakespeare and the art of persuasion.
Those who study Shakespeare will know that the resemblance that many of his characters have to contemporary leaders is uncanny. In this blog we will tackle Claudius, one of the shadier characters in Hamlet, who nonetheless presents us with a gift: a significant insight into the modern politician. Let’s take a close look at his speech from the second scene.
A room of state in the castle.
Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, HAMLET, POLONIUS, LAERTES, VOLTIMAND, CORNELIUS, Lords, and Attendants
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Consider how the use of metaphor, imagery, and other language devices are designed to generate a sombre and compassionate tone of unity. What is the effect this might have on the audience?
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
The alliteration, here, plays to the idea of the importance of sound. Don’t underestimate the sonorous nature of certain sounds, in relation to the role they play in persuading and soothing a potentially hostile crowd. Don’t ignore the iambic perfection (that it has ten-syllables) of the line, and how the musical component of iambic pentameter verse structure can be used to endear an audience to a speaker. Placing such sound devices in alignment with the inherent inclusivity of ‘we’ and the appeal to wisdom (or the characterisation of Denmark as, in fact, possessing wisdom) is deeply complimentary of the audience and therefore likely to massage and mollify. Consider the usage of a compassionate or benevolent tone.
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state ,
Have we—as ’twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole—
Taken to wife.
In his vindication of his union with “sometime sister” Gertrude, Claudius is careful to convey a sense of equanimity with his people in suffering and to distance himself from the joy of his marriage. Notice how he again uses the royal “we.” In this, he is Denmark and so are the people. It is a useful ploy that attempts to devoid him from taking personal responsibility for the marriage. There is even an air of benevolence. The active and personal initiative of matrimony is reduced to a passive and public gesture for a state in mourning. Consider how active and passive voice can be used to persuade: to illuminate and distance information and control the audience’s gaze.
Sometimes the justification of the questionable is aided through strong imagery. In this case, ‘warlike state’ plays upon the values of the people to whom it is directed.
Nor have we herein barred
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along.
Such a generalisation, or sweeping statement, may well appeal to commonly, or even somewhat, held beliefs. However, the tactic is clearly designed to manipulate those in the room into feeling that their opposition to the marriage is the minority view. Generalisations often have the power of stifling or simplifying debate and of moving the conversation forward. Consider the brisk nature of the remark and alliteration of the Ws.
For all, our thanks.
Now follows that you know. Young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth
Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleaguèd with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not failed to pester us with message
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
The anecdote now shared with the people of Denmark is timely, for it positions the audience to see Claudius as a strong and decisive leader, who is in charge of the affairs of state and is a man of authority, who has intimate and first-hand knowledge. Moreover, he raises the valour, glory and gains of the dead King Hamlet – whom the people are presently mourning – as being in jeopardy, thus generating opposition to the upstart Norwegian. In a further attempt to unify, Claudius appeals to nationhood, patriotism, and justice by drawing reference to the threat from Norway and, more specifically, Fortinbras. Don’t ignore the emotive language in this section. What effect does it have on the audience? Consider how it operates to shape the idea in the audience’s mind that it is in the process of being wronged or usurped in some way; or that a great injustice is being conveyed at its expense. Despite all the inclusive language and attempts at unity, he appeals to fear and the threat of disunity.
Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras—
Who, impotent and bedrid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew’s purpose—to suppress
His further gait herein, in that the levies,
The lists, and full proportions are all made
Out of his subject; and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltemand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway,
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king more than the scope
Of these dilated articles allow. (gives them a paper)
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.
Claudius’ reference to haste and duty is a further appeal to national security and loyalty, and stifles debate and a more protracted public moment. He is able to execute his role by carrying a commanding tone.
Hamlet Characters – A Summary:
The characters in Hamlet are, at times, confronted with a difficult sell; and newly crowned Claudius is no exception: acutely aware of how he rose to power he must show the required level of grief for the death of his brother, normalise his marriage to his dead brother’s wife, and offer the state of Denmark hope in strength at a time of leadership transition.
Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019