In The Wheel of Fire by G. Wilson Knight, Knight’s argument that Claudius was not a plausible villain has multiple merits but also some underlying flaws. I will defend that Claudius’ later actions were forced on him due to Hamlet’s dangerous mental state, but I will argue against his claims that Claudius isn’t a criminal and is a good and gentle king.
In Knight’s first sentence, he claims that Claudius is not a criminal. I believe this is not a valid claim based on how Claudius rose to the throne. Although Knight addresses his past sin briefly, the fact remains that he killed his brother, usurped the Danish throne, and married the King Hamlet’s widow. The new king clearly sinned and had an unnatural arrival to the throne. In Act 3, Claudius incriminates himself in his only soliloquy and describes his vast guilt for his sins, “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t, / A brother’s murder.” (III. III. 40-42) This quote is significant because it reveals that Claudius did, in fact, kill his brother and is feeling the full weight of that sinful burden. Claudius’ saying “it smells to heaven” takes a dive into Claudius religious views. He mentions heaven as he remembers that his crime is the same as Cain’s (from the Bible), but is struggling with being able to repent as he is not willing to give up what he gained from the murder, namely the throne and Gertrude. I also believe the mention of heaven is compelling because it signifies how Claudius, due to his actions, has effectively lost the chance to go to heaven after life, as his crimes prominently “smell” to the gods.
Although I disagree with Knight’s earlier claims, I do defend his claim that Claudius cannot be blamed for his later actions as they were forced on to him. As King, disregarding his past or personal life, he has a responsibility to protect his country and the people in it. Objectively, Hamlet has shown that he is unstable and a danger to the state. Therefore, all of Claudius’ attempts to kill Hamlet are justified. An example of how Hamlet is a threat to the safety of the state is his killing of Polonius. Stirred by a wave of emotions following his realization of the potential truth of his father’s murder, he thoughtlessly stabbed his sword through a tapestry, assuming that it was someone more important. This reckless move needlessly cost a life, and displayed a significant reason why Hamlet would be unfit to be King. Due to his conniving nature, Knight comments that people have trouble reading him and therefore, fear him. This issue, along with madness and an appetite for violence are not traits of a King. Therefore, with a responsibility to Denmark and the Danish citizens, I would defend Knight’s claim that Claudius was forced into those later actions due to the roles of his position.