Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Claudius, Derek Jacobi, Hamlet, Michael Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Richard Burton
In favor of Claudius, the sinister, archetypal wicked uncle of Hamlet, it has to be stated that he is good in bed. That, at least, is Hamlet’s dark suspicion: his mother found Claudius so irresistible that she dived into the conjugal sack with him immediately after the demise of Hamlet Senior. The funeral baked meats may have coldly furnished forth the marriage tables, but the marriage bed, it seems, was hot.
Hamlet dilates further on this favorite topic in his famous soliloquy, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt”:
That it should come to this.
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr. So loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.
So solicitous was the elder Hamlet of his chaste, virtuous wife, one gathers, that he would never dream of troubling her with his more wolfish desires. In Hamlet’s mind, of course, the pertinent animal is the goat. Let us pause for a look at a real Greek satyr and his most salient characteristic.
Like Hamlet’s caricature of Claudius, satyrs were noted for sexual shenanigans and very heavy drinking. An interesting combination, isn’t it?
The word “satyr” is a hapax legomenon in Shakespeare, meaning he uses it only once. That sounds significant at first, but the Bard’s diction was so varied and rich that up to 45% of his words are hapaxes (depending on how one defines the term). By comparison, you hit a hapax in the Iliad about every nine verses, not nearly so often.*
Still, Shakespeare employs Greek myths frequently enough that the single use of “satyr” seems distinctive. Hamlet twice refers to Hamlet Senior as “Hyperion,” the Titan god of sunlight. In the bedroom confrontation in Act 3, he points to his father’s picture, forcing Gertrude to compare “Hyperion” with the “mildew’d ear” Claudius. One is fair and handsome, the other– to Hamlet’s eye– hideously ugly. Like a jealous lover, Hamlet feverishly imagines Claudius caressing Gertrude in bed:
Let [not] the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out:
That I essentially am not in madness
But mad in craft.
The irony is that nobody in the play speaks more crudely and obscenely than Hamlet himself. But what of Gertrude? Is she truly in love with Claudius? Opinions about her motivations and loyalties vary widely. Yet when Hamlet speaks abusively to her, she cries, “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” She is being forced to choose between the two people she most loves, her son and her husband. Although she is deeply loyal to Hamlet, a telling moment occurs when Claudius is confronted by a hostile young Laertes, angry at the death of his father Polonius.
Laertes (having forced his way in): Where’s my father?
Gertrude: But not by him!
Eager to protect her husband, Gertrude defends him by implicitly pointing to the real killer, Hamlet. So yes, there’s something about Claudius…
Let’s look at the actors who have essayed the role, starting with the Laurence Olivier version of 1948. With his arched eyebrows, Basil Sydney made a very satyr-like Claudius.
Olivier’s production heavily emphasized the Oedipal aspects of the plot. Eileen Herlie, who played Gertrude, was 28 years old, and Olivier, her “son,” was 40 at the time of filming.
Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton both played Hamlet in the early 60s. O’Toole’s rapturously received 1963 production at the Old Vic was directed by Olivier without cuts and included a young Michael Gambon as “spear-carrier.” Claudius was played by stage legend Michael Redgrave, who had already portrayed both Laertes and Hamlet.
John Gielgud directed the version with Richard Burton as Hamlet (1964). Claudius was played by Alfred Drake, whose performance was criticized even though the play was a smash hit. Eileen Herlie took the role of Gertrude again (she was now 44, while Burton was 39), and Hume Cronyn made a notable Polonius. Gielgud voiced the Ghost, who was projected as a shadow against the wall.
After these Titanic performances, the seventies were dry years for Hamlet. 1980 finally saw a BBC television version with Derek Jacobi as the prince and none other than the glorious Patrick Stewart as the satyr. Talk about a sexy Claudius!
Stewart went on to play Claudius again opposite David Tennant in the 2008 RSC production.
In 1989, Hamlet was played by Ian Charleson in Richard Eyre’s production at the National. Charleson, best known for Chariots of Fire, took over when Daniel Day-Lewis dropped the role. Sadly, Charleson died of AIDS at the age of 40, and Hamlet was his last role. Ian McKellen described his performance as “the perfect Hamlet.” In that production, Judi Dench was Gertrude and the handsome John Castle played Claudius.
The very next year, Alan Bates played Claudius in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version, with Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close (fresh from Fatal Attraction) as Gertrude.
And then there was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996). This is the only version I know of where both Hamlet and Claudius look Danish, with fair complexions and hair. A regal Derek Jacobi did the honors as Claudius, with Julie Christie as Gertrude.
The 2000 film version used a modern setting and an interesting cast: Ethan Hawke as Hamlet opposite a creepy-sexy and surprisingly young Kyle Maclachlan as Claudius (notably, Bill Murray played Polonius). Reviews were mixed.
Jude Law played a full-throttle Hamlet in London (2008) and New York (2009). Claudius was Kevin R. McNally (interestingly, yet another I Claudius veteran, having played Castor back in 1976). Gertrude was Geraldine James.
My roundup of Claudii would not be complete without two more entries. First, we mustn’t forget Scar, the wicked uncle delectably voiced by Jeremy Irons in The Lion King.
And then there’s that upcoming Hamlet in London with Ben Cumberbatch as the gloomy Dane. And who will be his nemesis? You already knew this, right?
Have I missed your favorite Claudius? Let me know!!
*Data on hapax legomena from Mark Edwards’s commentary on the Iliad, Books 17-20, p. 53.
I didn’t know 9or remember) who was playing Claudius against Benedict Cumberbatch. So excited for you. He’ll be terrific.
Yes, too bad the tickets were sold out ages ago, before the full cast was announced. There is a ticket lottery for the last remaining few, but slim chances…
You could try a broker Do they have them in the UK?
I know very little about how that works, but I’m sure there are ways. I have tickets for one of the cinema broadcasts, so worst case I’ll be able to see that.
Not a bad case as an alternative. They do a good job. I didn’t realize they’d already planned a live film showing. Then there’s hope it will find it’s way to one of the on line streaming, download sites, like DT. Who knows, even Mexico may grab it.
Took a look at the brokers–the cheapest price for a single ticket right now is just under $1000 US.
I so knew where this was heading….he will be perfect. Bummer it’s not closer to you. (Or me for that matter but I am even further away.) Alan Bates, what a cutie pie. The satryr drawing gave me a giggle. (Also, I love Jon Stewart but I think I prefer him older, balder and without the big hairy beard. I am not ‘beardist’, just in this case.)
You mean Patrick Stewart? Yes, I’m so used to him bald that it’s odd seeing him any other way. But I liked him with hair as Sejanus in “I Claudius.” (Jon Stewart is sexy too!)
Ha, yes, I meant Patrick. 😁 Jon Stewart ain’t half bad but I haven’t ever properly watched The Daily Show.
And now it’s over! I wonder what he’s doing these days? And nights, heh, heh 🙂
The picture of Alan Bates is a taste of what I’m anticipating from himself.
Yes, indeed! That photo really caught my eye.
Thank you so much for this post, Linnet. I’ve enjoyed very much the Claudius – I Claudius parallels.
I have another Claudius to add to the list; not from a play or film but from a radio drama. The amazing Paul Hilton gave voice to the “not so wicked uncle” for the BBC; unfortunately I didn’t record the whole play, I have only Act I, but his velvetely harsh voice is ideal for the role. His Globe’s Doctor Faustus is available for purchase or rent
Not to talk of Richard Armitage that in the reading of Hamlet A Novel voiced all the characters. His Claudius is one of my favourite voices of his repertoire 🙂 Panty-breaking 😀
Ah! Thanks for these great suggestions for those of us who can’t get enough Claudius!
Talking about Claudius, Hamlet etc….I was thinking about one of my fav movie:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (because of…Gary Oldman ^^ and Tim Roth). Then I realized that Claudius was played by Donald Stumper (Game of Thrones: Maester Luwin). By the way, Iain Glenn (GoT: Jorah Mormont) was Hamlet.
But still….great movie !
Ah, thanks for this one! And with GoT connections too. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth are both amazing actors. I have read this play but not seen the movie, so…
sigh it is one perfect piece of casting as far as i’m concerned 🙂 Lucky to have him really as Claudius is so crucial to the story to what we believe about Gertrude’s relationships to him and her motivations etc. Really liked Patrick Stewart too, i love that DT version. The Mel Gibson one is great, not at all as bad as it might seem 😉
Which reminds me i need to get my act together and read it again 🙂
Yes, Claudius is v. important since Gertrude’s part is underwritten. Claudius does not have as many lines as I expected, going back to look at the play. The lion’s share of course goes to Hamlet. I’ll be very interested to see which parts they cut. Surely they won’t do the full 4 hours!
very unlikely 😉 i guess there must be the standard cuts to bring it down to 3h 30 min or so with interval. Unfortunately i don’t know exactly all the details of it to know which cuts are more common. But regardless, Claudius and Gertrude are crucial to the play because even though they may have less lines i think it is important as viewers to form an independent opinion on their relationship aside from Hamlet’s very personal and subjective view. And i think that relationship can be taken in many directions, so it will be interesting to see how it will play out and the non-verbal stuff will hopefully be equally as interesting as the written lines 🙂
The non-verbal stuff. Exactly. I think he will have good chemistry with Anastasia, but then he rarely misses 🙂
Benedict Cumberbatch en Español said:
I loved your piece about Claudius! Enjoyed inmensely to be honest.
I have to read Hamlet again (in English hopefully) before attending NTLive in México (Jan 2016) and I hope to come back to you with a few more comments.
Please do! I’d like to know what you think after you see the show 🙂 You might also enjoy this essay called “In Defense of Claudius” which inspired and informed parts of my post: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletkingdefense.html