• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Shakespeare’s “Claudius” is Innocent

ByFreddy Lowe

Feb 12, 2023
"To be or not to be" skull

CW: Major spoilers for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Pierre Bayard’s essay “Enquête sur Hamlet: le Dialogue de Sourds”

In Enquête sur Hamlet, an essay still unpublished in English, Pierre Bayard highlights a plothole.

In the famous Mousetrap scene, Hamlet stages a play depicting a murder by poisoned ear to expose Claudius’s crime.  However, in a pre-Mousetrap pantomime, the actors have already performed that action.  Why does Claudius react horrified when he watches the play that parallels the death of Hamlet’s father but doesn’t react at all in the earlier instance?

If Claudius were guilty of the murder, he would have left the auditorium the moment it was portrayed onstage. 

Why does he witness his crime and not react immediately?  Bayard suggests that he doesn’t recognise the crime.

This is not the only plothole.  What about The Murder of Gonzago?  Hamlet has just found out that his uncle poured poison into his father’s ear.  This is an extremely specific method of murder, and the actors happen to have a play in their repertoire that chronicles this exact plot.  How does this play contain the identical murder method as (apparently) employed by Claudius?  Claudius can’t have read the play, otherwise (again), he’d have recognised the poison-in-ear action as portrayed in the pantomime.

Bayard thus points to the conclusion that Claudius isn’t the murderer.  But what about Act III.iii, in which Claudius “confesses” to his crime?  

Well, in Act III.iv, Hamlet is in Gertrude’s bed-chamber, and the ghost of his father appears to him.  Hamlet and the audience see it, but Gertrude does not.  

This begs the question.  Is Hamlet subject to hallucinations?  It’s not implausible.  Think of the banquet scene in Macbeth, where the murdered Banquo appears and is only seen by Macbeth.  Everybody else confirms that Banquo’s seat is empty.  Shakespearean heroes can hallucinate.  Why not Hamlet too? 

Act III.iv demonstrates that the audience is privy to Hamlet’s focalisation, even if what he sees is suspect.  This throws into question every other scene of the play in which it is just him and us witnessing the action!  For example, his “conversation” with the ghost, and Claudius’s confession. 

Nobody else is onstage during the confession, but Hamlet is watching in the wings.  Without anyone else present, how do we know that our unreliable focaliser is witnessing something real? 

Add to that the sheer implausibility of the confession.  Claudius, calm and exempt from suspicion until now, suddenly breaks down in guilty prayer?  In clear proximity to potential listeners (as Hamlet proves!)?  If you reread that scene, you’ll see it comes out of nowhere…but we’re seeing it through Hamlet’s unreliable focalisation.

Bayard, therefore, suggests that Hamlet is hallucinating Claudius’s confession.  

Who then?  Who killed Hamlet’s father if Claudius is innocent?  Does nobody spring to mind?

Let’s build a profile.  

  1. The killer knows of The Murder of Gonzago.
  2. The killer’s judgement is not trustworthy.
  3. The killer is prone to fits of violence.
  4. The killer is easily capable of murder: e.g. stabbing someone through a curtain, killing someone in a duel, pouring poison down a man’s throat, or psychologically bullying his girlfriend into suicide.
  5. This character could even follow the Macbeth tradition of seeing a ghostly hallucination of his victim! ☺ 

In fact – Prince Hamlet of Denmark.

Freud’s famous theory on Hamlet was that he had an Oedipus complex that provoked an unconscious desire to kill his father.  It never occurred to him that Hamlet had carried it out.

What about this quotation from him: 

“How stand I then, / That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d, / Excitements of my reason and my blood, / And let all sleep…”?

The instability of language allows us to form a new text, whereby Hamlet is not saying “I have a killed father”, but rather, “I have – my father – killed!”

So, Hamlet pours poison into his father’s ear.  Claudius takes the throne.  Hamlet attempts to suppress the guilt of his crime, hence his paranoia.  His hallucinations tell him that it was, in fact, Claudius who did it. (Only the hallucinating Hamlet spoke to the ghost; the others simply caught a glimpse of a figure in the distance.) He hesitates in taking revenge because killing Claudius means reawakening the memory of the crime committed by him, not his uncle.  He further demonstrates his merciless capacity to kill: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Polonius, and – indirectly – Ophelia.

But what was his motive?

Bayard suggests that he discovered his father in bed with Ophelia before the events of the play.  This accounts for Hamlet’s unprovoked verbal attack, an attack that has prompted much feminist literary debate in terms of its possible motivations.

The murder method also makes more sense.  Pouring poison in someone’s ear when they’re napping in the garden would prove problematic.  The King’s head would have been at a bizarre angle for the poison to successfully move down his ear canal.  But it would be possible if the King was lying on his side in bed.

Ophelia receives (still unjustified!) abuse from Hamlet, accusing her of sleeping around…and the King dies while in bed.  Those events, Bayard claims, are linked. 

Bayard’s ideas of literary theory refer to the intermediary world between the incomplete text and the subjective reader, in which each reader ‘completes’ the gaps and thus forms their version of the text.  This essential instability of literature justifies Bayard creating “his” text of Hamlet (as explained above), and equally allows us to accept or reject his hypothesis.  However, certainly according to Bayard, the play’s true killer has been hiding in that intermediary world too long, in a deceptive tranquillity that has now been exposed. 

Image Credit: ‘To be, or not to be’ – Hamlet” by diegoperez74 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival