Act IV develops a new revenge scheme in Hamlet, and again it is vengeance for the death of a father. Laertes has lost his father, as Hamlet lost his, and seeks to exact revenge on the party responsible.
Claudius is sly and quick to point the finger at Hamlet, as the object to quell Laertes’s lust for revenge. This is an interesting point in the play. What Claudius does, in egging on Laertes, is justify Hamlet’s revenge schemes on him. Just as Hamlet is seemingly responsible for Laertes’s father’s death, and thus Laertes justified in wanting to kill Hamlet, so is Claudius responsible for Hamlet’s father’s death, and thus Hamlet is justified in wanting to kill Claudius.
With the words “And where th’offence is, let the great axe fall” (4.5.211), Claudius has essentially just signed his own death warrant.
Of course, Claudius isn’t new to the murder game – as he killed King Hamlet, his brother, and potentially more before him – it is thus naturally easier for him to concoct a plan to kill Hamlet.
But, his methods – having Laertes do the dirty work – hint at his role as a mastermind, and not necessarily one to get his own has muddied. It does not seem a stretch to think that Claudius might have arranged for King Hamlet to be executed by someone else, and it isn’t much more of a leap to think that Gertrude might have had a hand in that.
Remember the words of the ghost, “won to his [Claudius’s] shameful lust/ The will of my most seeming virtuous queen.” (1.5.45-6). Gertrude is “seeming virtuous” but that seems to hint at the possibility that this is all just for show (“seeming”) and not the real deal.
So Gertrude and Claudius seem to deserve each other. However, Claudius is not above capitalizing on Laertes recent grief, so it is not impossible that Claudius is solely responsible for King Hamlet’s demise, and Gertrude’s short-lived grief could very well have been a result of Claudius’s quick silver tongue.
Claudius is quite the mastermind, and it is unfortunate that we don’t get more soliloquies from him, because he does seem to fit the mold to be of a kind with Iago and Richard III.
However, we do get a lot from Hamlet – a less confident, and arguably more justifiable character than Iago and Richard III. Shakespeare is giving us a unique perspective with Claudius that is not seen in many of his other revenge and tragedy plays. It is refreshing and interesting to see things from Hamlet’s perspective since we are inclined to root for him, though he is incapable of rooting for himself.
I wonder if Hamlet’s personality can be traced back to Claudius. Younger brother’s are often usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed through history, and so Claudius, as uncle to Hamlet, may have set forth in motion a long-con for the throne. Claudius may have helped mold Hamlet into the person he is, and in a long-winded attempt to steal the throne from him.