Shakespearean criminals lack the simple clarity of absolute evil. Claudius is a perfect example of a quintessential Shakespearean antagonist.
Claudius the King in Shakespeare's Hamlet is a complex individual. In the play, he murders his brother, marries his former sister in law, and ascends to the throne of Denmark. Claudius is the antagonist in the play Hamlet. Claudius is a morally weak villain who values power and material things more than he values others.
At the beginning Claudius has been mysterious to us, we are not sure whether he is the true killer or not? By the development of the events, we find out that, Claudius is aware of his crimes: Claudius shows clear signs of guilt in his reaction to “The Mousetrap". In the prayer scene Claudius shows guilt and remorse at the murderous act he has committed “O! my offense is rank it smells to heaven” He likens himself to Cain, the primal or first murderer, Cain's action is the first murder in the Bible, and as a result God exiles Cain from his family. Claudius is so aware of it when he tries, unsuccessfully, to pray and admits that he asks for God's mercy. "But oh, what form of prayer can serve my turn?" Claudius knows that he will never abdicate the throne, nor will he give up Gertrude and all "those effects for which I did murder," such as his power and position. He expects to spend eternity in hell.
He tries to ask God's forgiveness in a moving soliloquy but he realizes that he still reaps all the benefits of his crimes and cannot give them up:
My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder?
That cannot be since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
Claudius can also be sensitive and gentle. He is genuinely sorry for Polonius' death, and he truly loves Gertrude. He must kill Hamlet, but he refuses to do so with his own hand for Gertrude's sake. He also sincerely likes Ophelia and treats her with the kindness that she should receive from her great love, Hamlet. But even those whom Claudius cares for cannot come before his ambition and desires. He will use the grieving Laertes to whatever ends necessary, and he denies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the knowledge of the contents of the letter to England. The knowledge that could have saved their lives, or at least made them proceed with caution. And Claudius does not stop Gertrude from drinking the poison in the goblet during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes because it will implicate him in the plot. It is clear that we are intended to see Claudius as a murderous villain, but a multi- faceted villain: a man who cannot refrain from indulging his human desires.
Claudius presents all the positive traits of the perfect King in the performing of his duties. He dispatches with the Fortinbras issues in a diplomatic way. He is clear to point out to his ambassadors to Norway that they are limited in their bargaining power. Claudius makes us believe he understands his people in their grief and their merriment. He shows he is anxious to please those around him in his dealings with Laertes. Most importantly he seems anxious to please Hamlet “You are the most immediate to our throne” and “a loving and fair reply".
As a king, Claudius strikes us an intelligent and capable ruler. He gives a speech to make his court and country proud, addressing his brother's death and the potential conflict with Norway. Claudius knows that a change in government could ignite civil unrest, and he is afraid of possible unlawful allegiances and rebellion. His speech juxtaposes the people's loss with the new beginning they will have under his care, and he uses the death of Hamlet's father to create a sense of national solidarity.
So it seems that the same characteristics that make Claudius a bad man are those that make him a successful king. He has no qualms about manipulating people, and he is unapologetically selfish. Hypocrisy barely bothers Claudius: he pretends to be a loving stepfather to Hamlet even while sending him off to be killed. Claudius doesn't let his conscience get in the way of the job that needs to be done. When the tragic end comes to all the family. In his deviousness, Claudius places poison on the tip of the swords and in the goblets to ensure that Hamlet will be killed by Laertes, whom he has convinced to duel the prince. After both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded with the poisoned tip on Laertes sword because this sword was switched to Hamlet, and after Gertrude drinks from a poisoned goblet, Hamlet forces the remaining drink upon Claudius and he dies.