Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Henry IV Part 2. Act 3. Scene 1.
Hamlet Act 1 Interlude. We’ve all thunk the words, “It’s good to be the king.” Perhaps that was what Claudius was thunking. Ham Senior’d ride into the castle courtyard on his big, black stallion, returning from battle victorious over his adversary, Fortinbras Senior, blood still on his sword. All the women drooled over him. Even before he could shake the dust, they were ripping his their bodices off, wanting to have their way with him.
It is at moments like these that Claudius should have reflected on the words of Richard 3 on the Battle of Bosworth Field, “My kingdom for a whore.” Why Richard wanted a prostitute at that particular moment even scholars cannot guess. What motivates a king to say what a king says at any time is often beyond logic.
Richard should have asked for a horse instead. If he wanted a good ride, that would be the best way to go, don’t you think? That way he could’ve gotten out of Dodge real fast. The tides of war were going against him. There was a new sheriff in town and his name was Henry. It was indeed the winter of Richard’s discontent.
One thing was for sure. Richard was no Henry 4. He was more of his namesake Richard 2 than he cared to think. Unlike Henry 5, he could not rally his troops on Saint Crispin’s Day. It was no where near that feast day when he said the “my whore” line, being it was August and all.
So he asked for a prostitute at an inappropriate time. Unfortunately there was no Falstaff to procure one for him. Guess that is what happens when you take on a Tudor. England had asked, “Tu dor or not Tu dor.” And they had decided Tudor would be just fine.
Shakespeare knew a thing about kings. He could easily paraphrase the actor in an ad who said, “I’m not a doctor. I just play one on tv.” In other words, “I’m not a king. I just play one at the Globe.” Don’t forget that Mel Brooks’ Louis 16 stole from Shakespeare when he said, “It’s good to be the king.”
It was never good to be the king. It drove George 3 mad. If not madness, there was always regicide. And I am not talking Reggie from the Archie comics either. I’m talking guillotine regicide here. Too many kings had lost their heads too many times. If not their heads, other parts of their bodies. Just look at what happened to Nicky 2 in Russia.
One thing was sure. It wasn’t about to happen to Elizabeth Numero Uno, known by one and all as Elizabeth Regina, E.R. Not if she had anything to do with it. She came by her suspicions rightly. She was not forgetting what had happened to her mommy and she was not about to let it happen to her. There were all those English Catholics plotting, and their plots were plotting. They kept saying, “You’re illegitimate.” Of course, she was illegitimate. English rulers all the way back to 1066 and further were illegitimate in one way or another.
E.R.’s strategy: A smell of treason and off with their heads. A lot of folks feel sorry for Mary, Queen of Scots, but don’t. It was her own darn fault. She had lousy taste in men. Even though Mary was caged up like a little birdie, she just couldn’t leave well enough alone. She did her canary impression and sang her head off. Her head literally dropped into the basket.
E.R. knew her history. She knew that her granddaddy poached the crown from Richard 3 who had done his share of poaching. Henry 7 may not have known how to speak poetically. By all accounts he was a plain speaking guy. His son would do that for him. But Seven sure knew how to get a throne. Kick some Richard 3 butt.
Claudius had done what kings always did. He regicided for his throne. Thing was that he didn’t remember his English History 101. He repeated the same mistake Richard 3 did. Richard did a Hansel-and-Gretel and pushed the Princes-in-the-Tower into the oven, then he had them for lunch. What Richard forgot was that there is always a Henry waiting in the wings. Or a Fortinbras. And with some poison claret too.
In Shakespeare’s day, kings mattered. They mattered a lot. The king determined whether the country prospered or suffered. A king was placed on the throne by God and only God could remove him. This was back when folks believed in God, and they knew that you didn’t want to mess with God. You might grow warts or something worse. So, God help you if you de-throned a king. Without a very good reason. And I am talking really good here.
This is why Hamlet hesitated. Hamlet knew he better have a damned good reason to remove Uncle Claudius from the throne. He must be absolutely sure Uncle Claudius murdered his dad. Once he determined Claudius was an assassin, Hamlet not only had the right, he had the responsibility to execute the king.
Shakespeare tackled this question with “Richard II” and his history plays. So he was back in familiar territory. The question he hadn’t answered satisfactorily was what kind of person had the right to do the deed.
If you remember, Bolinbroke had a darned good reason. Richard II stole his inheritance. Yet there were those who never accepted Henry IV as king. They believed what Nixon said in the David Frost interviews. “If the president says it is legal, it is legal.” King Richard II had said the theft was legal.
So what does all this have to do with Hamlet? Elizabeth I, the ruler of Merry Olde England, had enough people try to detach her head that the question was on everybody’s mind. Elizabeth 1 woke up everyday, thinking, “Whose head am I going to have to chop off today?” Her daddy hadn’t raised a fool.
So why did Claudius do it? Why did he murder Ham’s dad? Maybe he fell head over for Gertrude. He returned from Wherever-Claudius-was-returning-from and saw Gertrude. He was beside himself. It doesn’t really matter if that is what happened. He dood the deed. Claudius not only homicided and regicided. He done fratricided. Even Macbeth didn’t go that far. The king was not Mac’s brother. For Claudius, there would be karmic consequences.