Claudius, Not Hamlet, Became King of Denmark
Michael J. Cummings...©
readers and audiences often ask why Claudius acceded to the throne in Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark. Should not the crown have passed to the dead king’s
son, Prince Hamlet?
necessarily. In Denmark, the setting of the play, an elective monarchy
held sway until 1660, when a hereditary monarchy replaced it. Therefore,
Shakespeare’s fictional Hamlet, based on a legendary Dane of the Middle
Ages, could not claim the crown as a birthright.
an elective monarchy, court officials–noblemen in high standing–selected
the new king by vote. The son of a king was, to be sure, the prime candidate
for the royal chair, and usually he won it. But the voting nobles had the
right to reject him in favor of another candidate. And that was precisely
what happened in fictional Elsinore. The nobles approved the king’s brother,
a hereditary monarchy, the king’s oldest son automatically ascended the
throne when his father died.
of course Danish laws do not explain why the nobles chose Claudius over
Hamlet. Shakespeare offers no explanation of their vote. However, in Act
V, Scene II, Hamlet refers to the election of Claudius, saying, “He that
hath killed my king and whored my mother, / Popped in between the election
and my hopes." These lines appear in a passage in which Hamlet–conversing
with his best friend, Horatio–is discussing Claudius’s murder plot against
him and his moral right to kill Claudius. The words “my hopes" may
signify that Hamlet expected to succeed his father. In the same scene of
the same act, Hamlet–dying from the wound inflicted by Laertes’ poisoned-tip
sword–again refers to Denmark election system when he says Fortinbras should
be the new king: “But I do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras:
he has my dying voice."
he did not gain accession after the murder of his father could have been
due to one or all of the following reasons: (1) Claudius actively campaigned
for the kingship, winning votes by promising political favors. (2) Gertrude,
eager to remarry and remain queen, campaigned on his behalf. (3) The nobles
perceived Hamlet as too young and callow–and perhaps more likely to support
the views of the common people instead of their views–and thus denied him
the tale on which Shakespeare based Hamlet–Amleth, a Latin work
by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?)–Feng (the character after whom Shakespeare
modeled Claudius) murders his brother, King Horwendil, out of jealousy.
The opening paragraph of Amleth explains the cause of the jealousy:
King of Denmark, married Gurutha, the daughter of Rorik, and she bore him
a son, whom they named Amleth. Horwendil's good fortune stung his brother
Feng with jealousy, so that the latter resolved treacherously to waylay
his brother, thus showing that goodness is not safe even from those of
a man's own house. And behold when a chance came to murder him, his bloody
hand sated the deadly passion of his soul.–(Eton, Oliver, trans. The
Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: David Nutt, 1894.)
Amleth tale also says Feng gained favor with the nobles by telling lies:
"Nor did his smooth words fail in their intent; for at courts, where fools
are sometimes favored and backbiters preferred, a lie lacks not credit"
its history, Denmark has had three monarchical systems:
In 940, Harald Bluetooth became the first king of a unified Denmark under
an elective system requiring the monarch to sign a charter guaranteeing
a division of power between the king and the people.
In 1660, Denmark adopted absolutism, granting the king full power, under
a hereditary system conferring the right of succession on the oldest son.
In 1665, a royal edict affirmed the hereditary system under the principle
of primogeniture, a legal term referring to the right of the oldest son
to inherit his father’s property.
In 1849, Denmark abandoned its absolutist monarchy in favor of a constitutional
monarchy that invested government power mainly in the people’s representatives
while retaining the king as a ceremonial figure. In 1953, Denmark granted
women the right to accede to the throne.
Oedipus, and Freud
Michael J. Cummings...©
an 1899 book entitled Interpretation of Dreams, Austrian neurologist
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, introduced the
term Oedipus complex. This term describes a psychological stage
of development in which a male child desires sexual relations with his
mother or a female child desires sexual relations with her father. The
child also exhibits hostility toward the parent of the same sex–a boy for
the father and a girl for the mother. In normal development, a child outgrows
this desire. However, in abnormal development, a child may retain his or
her sexual fixation on the parent of the opposite sex.
Freud coined the term Oedipus complex, Shakespeare scholars noted
that Hamlet exhibits the symptoms of this condition in his relationship
with his mother, Gertrude, and stepfather-uncle, Claudius. In a soliloquy
in Act I, Scene II, Hamlet condemns Claudius as a “satyr" and agonizes
over his mother’s hasty marriage to him, saying, “O, most wicked speed,
to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" Ample evidence exists
elsewhere in the play to support the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet’s
character while buttressing the view that Hamlet is mentally deranged.
coining his term, Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology.
Here is the story, in brief:
oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son
who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts
to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet,
then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But
the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after tying him to a
tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couple–Polybus
(also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope).
They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood.
day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the oracle tells Oedipus
that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother.
Horrified, Oedipus later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to
live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick
of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not
know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
the road to Thebes, which leads away from Corinth, Oedipus encounters his
real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and several attendants.
Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius
quarrel over a triviality–who has the right of way. The quarrel leads to
violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants.
Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a
woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could
not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at
midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror.
No one can enter or leave the city.
Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick
of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As
an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as
an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old
man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.
and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubliant Thebans then offer this
newcomer the throne of Thebes. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed
queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although
no one in Thebes becomes aware of this fact until much later. Thus, the
oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.
of course, does not marry his mother. But, according to Freudian interpreters
of the play, he does desire her–at least subconsciously. What is more,
he solves a riddle of sorts, a homicide case, and kills his father–that
is, stepfather. However, unlike Oedipus, Hamlet does not live on to anguish
over the past.