What If Claudius Was Innocent?

Here’s a thought that came to me over the weekend.  What if the “ghost of Hamlet’s father” really was an evil spirit that was just trying to cause trouble? What if Claudius didn’t really kill Hamlet’s father?  How would the play change?

Other than Claudius’ actual words (“a brother’s murder”), how much evidence is there that he admits to his crime?  If we snipped that bit out could he just as easily be dealing with guilt over the “crime” of marrying his brother’s wife?

More importantly, what does this do to the character of Hamlet?  We go through the entire play assuming that Hamlet is doing the right thing, and Claudius is the bad guy. What if it was reversed? What if we really didn’t know? Or, even better, what if we knew (somehow) that Claudius was innocent, and that Hamlet spends the play chasing the wrong guy?


7 thoughts on “What If Claudius Was Innocent?

  1. I love plot hypotheticals like this. We’re taking the ghost’s word for it–and Hamlet’s word for what the ghost said, and there’s not really any investigation into whether there were other circumstances at play. Maybe Claudius and Gertrude killed Hamlet Sr. but he had it coming. Maybe H Sr. thought they killed him and was wrong. I want to see a full-length POV switch to explore it, like Wide Sargasso Sea did for Jane Eyre.

  2. Ed O'Toole says:

    Yes, and except for the fact that Macbeth and his wife murder Duncan, Banquo and the MacDuffs, maybe the two are just living a shared delusion induced by the weird sisters.

    It’s fun to play hypotheticals, but only if there’s ambiguity to play with. Saying that all we’ve got to counter the notion that Claudius murdered the king is Claudius’s admission that he murdered the king is absurd on its face. There’s no ambiguity about his confession, and we’re not taking anybody’s word for it but Claudius’s. Granted, Hamlet doesn’t hear him confessing, but we do. Why would Claudius confess and attempt to ask forgiveness for a murder he didn’t commit?

  3. That’s a lot of “what ifs”.

    And “what if” Shakespeare wrote an entirely different play and called it The Tragedie of Claudius, King of Denmarke?

    “More importantly, what does this do to the character of Hamlet? We go through the entire play assuming that Hamlet is doing the right thing, and Claudius is the bad guy. ”
    –No, we don’t “assume”that to be so, Shakespeare tells us it is exactly so.

    Still trying to find ways to make Hamlet the bad guy, Duane? Re-writing the play is the last resort. 🙂

  4. One of my college classes discussed the religious historical context of when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. England practiced Protestantism which denied the existence of Purgatory, thereby denying that “ghosts” would come back to the living. When England practiced Catholicism, Purgatory was accepted and made it plausible that ghosts would come back to living to speak of unfinished business. Protestantism denied that souls of the dead would have any reason to come back, so most likely the “ghost” of Hamlet’s father was a demon, come to cause mischief and chaos. If that was the true intent, well… job well done.

  5. To Jessica:

    Did the professor also discuss the fact that there were many ‘closeted Catholics’ in the country? There is even speculation that Shakespeare himself was one of them.

    Ham. And therefore as a stranger giue it welcome.
    There are more things in Heauen and Earth, Horatio,
    Then are dream’t of in our Philosophy.

    BTW, Horatio questions the ghost vs. demon idea,

    Hora. What if it tempt you toward the flood my Lord,
    Or to the dreadfull somnet of the cleefe
    That bettles ore his base into the sea,
    And there assume some other horrable forme
    Which might depriue your soueraigntie of reason,
    And draw you into madnes, thinke of it,

    as does Hamlet .

    Ham. Angels and Ministers of grace defend vs:
    Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d,
    Bring with thee ayres from heauen, or blasts from hell,
    Be thy intents wicked, or charitable,
    Thou com’st in such a questionable shape,
    That I will speake to thee, Ile call thee Hamlet,

    Ultimately, Hamlet comes to believe the apparition is not a demon,

    Ham. Yes by Saint Patrick but there is Horatio,
    And much offence to, touching this vision heere,
    It is an honest Ghost that let me tell you,

    so no matter the confusion and chaos that ensues as a result of its visitations, it’s really not “most likely the “ghost” of Hamlet’s father was a demon, come to cause mischief and chaos.” regardless of Protestant belief at the time.

  6. Finn Agger says:

    There is the possibility that he accuses himself of having THOUGHT about killing his brother etc. This is what Jesus pointed out at the Sermon of the Mount. Claudius might be revealed by the play within the play, but he might have been drunk as a Dane and fallen asleep. Christian IV most likely did that at the premiere of Macbeth. I know, I sound like a councel for Claudius’ defense. Still, I feel that it his father’s project, Hamlet carries out. Revenge. Very medieval.

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