QotW (#67): 11 February 2019

“this it is, when men are ruled by women” – or at least by their groins …

Claudius & Gertrude

Although I’m never going to end up on stage, I often compare teaching to acting.

Non-teachers, think for a second: up to six performances a day, with audiences who require subtly different characterisations from you.  (My timetable goes from Y12 to Y7 without interval on a Friday afternoon, for instance).  That plus the teacher persona you can only shrug off when you’re safely indoors (because even walking down the street you end up intervening when you see pupils in uniform mucking about).  To say nothing of the range of people you have to be – in five minute chunks – at Parents’ Evenings …

No wonder I’m perpetually exhausted.

But if I were asked to play a Shakespearean role, what would be my top three choices?

Firstly, Richard III – obviously.  I like to think that I ‘add colours to the chameleon‘ [a] all day every day.  Even those who think they know me would be surprised at how often any smile on my face ‘is only there trying to fool the public‘. [b]

Next, Falstaff (the 1HIV version) which is, in truth, probably my default persona, especially with older students.

Finally, Hamlet’s uncle/replacement father, Claudius.  It’s difficult to articulate an attraction which has been with me for years: something for me to explore when we get to Hamlet in the Ponytail Shakespeare read-through?

ackroydBut that attraction made me immediately think of Claudius as I began reading Peter Ackroyd‘s history of the Tudors, even though I was initially (fruitlessly, as it turns out) looking for something interesting about Richard III and Henry VII.

Ackroyd’s book begins with Henry VIII, and soon gets stuck into his marital issues.  Here he is on the process that led to that groundbreaking first divorce …

‘Most importantly she [Katherine of Aragon] had failed in her primary duty to bear a son and heir.

Certain doubts had already entered Henry’s mind.  He had read the text in Leviticus that prohibited any man from marrying the widow of a dead brother.  It declares that ‘thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is thy brother’s nakedness’, for which the penalty will be that of bearing no children.  […] What if his marriage flouted divine decree?  In Leviticus itself God speaks: ‘I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague … and ye shall sow your seed in vain.’ God had perhaps denied him a royal heir as punishment for his sin.’ [c]

So, why Claudius?  For the obvious reason that he also marries his dead wife’s widow, as Henry himself did.

How does this play out for our King of Denmark, and contextually?  Like Julius Caesar, one of the things I’ve not quite been able to figure out is whether or not Claudius is a good king.  Or an effective one.

I turned to my kingship paradigm

Claudius can’t be blamed for his will to power – anyone in the plays remotely close to the throne has it.  And fratricide is just ‘one of the things you have to do‘ to get your hands on the crown, right?  So as the play opens, he seems collected and competent. His ‘legitimacy‘ was established by election, albeit this might be a little tenuous having taken place whilst the natural heir is away at Wittenburg (see below).  But his ‘authority‘ seems assured in his opening scene, not least in his foreign policy in dealing with that pesky Fortinbras.

Two things strike me: firstly how brittle Claudius’ confidence is.  With Richard, and indeed Macbeth, I’m used to people making poor decisions as soon as they ascend the throne, but I can’t help feeling Claudius ought to brazen out the Players’ implicit accusation.  I mean, don’t kill people if you aren’t prepared to front up to your crime.

But secondly – and this is the connection to Henry VIII – why marry your brother’s wife?

There are probably sound political reasons in both cases – Henry will have wanted to maintain England’s relationship with Spain in the face of a strong France just across the channel.  I’m going to suggest that Henry’s legendary, reckless quest for a male heir implies a great deal about him:

  • it belies his outward self-confidence in his legitimacy, and that of the Tudor dynasty.  In this, I believe he might be a little like Claudius – otherwise why not wait Hamlet was back to hold the election?
  • secondly, there is an obsession with ‘dynasty‘.  I’ve argued, in my paradigm, that a settled succession will help keep waverers in line.  Look at the way Elizabeth’s grip on the throne grew more tenuous once she passed child-bearing age.  This, I think, is a major mis-step by Claudius.  If we believe that Hamlet is thirty, supported by his telling her:

at your age

The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,

And waits upon the judgment [a]

then Claudius is relying on Hamlet for ‘dynasty‘, and what self-respecting Machiavel would do that, knowing that his secret might be uncovered at any point, or indeed that Hamlet could be a figurehead for any dissent against his rule?

  • finally, I believe Henry was also dominated by his groin.  He had affairs whilst Katherine was still his queen, but eventually Anne Boleyn surely forced his hand by refusing to have sex with him?  There is a physical aspect to Claudius’ marriage, as Hamlet notes:

by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse

… and his queen is last (but not least?) of the triumvirate he won’t give up whilst trying to pray for forgiveness.  Specifically, Gertrude is one of the things he committed the murder to gain …

Henry didn’t quite receive the full punishment God outlined to Leviticus, but it seems that Claudius got a double helping.  And I think, on the whole, it’s helped me decide against Claudius, who made a series of poor decisions, and paid an early price – his rule can’t have been longer than a few months.

Was it all because he was ruled by his groin?


[a] all references to Shakespeare plays are taken from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org

[b] Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Tears of a Clown (1970) – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tears_of_a_Clown

[c] Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Vol. II:  The Tudors (Macmillan:  London, 2012)


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: