Claudius has been dubbed as the central villain in ‘Hamlet,’ and considering it is his immoral actions that lead to Hamlet’s quest for revenge, one could easily agree that he is the archetypal villain. It is very easy to say that Claudius is the reason for the ‘moral poisoning,’ as Tawe notes, in Denmark, but one must also consider his abilities as an effective and powerful leader. It is apparent that he is loved by the people, and presents himself as an effective leader. Although he may be a ‘murderer and a villain,’ does affect his leadership?
From his introduction, it is obvious that Claudius is an effective King, and that his presence is dramatically felt. In act one scene two, it is clear that Claudius is charismatic, and is able to charm people with his courteousness. He is obsequiously kind to Hamlet, albeit in a patronizing way, and asks him to look upon him as a ‘friend on Denmark.’ He appears to be kind to Hamlet, declaring that he will be a ‘father’ to him. In the Branagh version, this conversation happens in a great hall full of people, who cheer for Claudius. On the outside, Claudius appears to be loving towards Hamlet, which gains him the favour of the people in Elsinore, although to the audience he does appear insensitive. The image that he portrays is what makes him an effective leader, as he is able to draw people in and entice them, much like he did with Gertrude. He too enticed her in with ‘dexterity,’ which makes Claudius appear to be a magnetic figure that people respond well too, which is a desired quality in an effective and powerful leader.
As the play develops, Claudius’ morals come into question as he begins to use and manipulate others for his own purposes. He does this skillfully, and appears to be an effective leader in this sense, but does this make him an immoral man? Claudius quickly becomes a Machiavellian figure, as his cunning and scheming ways are unveiled, and it becomes evident that he is responsible for the political intrigue in Elsinore. In this respect, Claudius is seen to be duplicitous, as while he appears to be using people for Hamlet’s benefit, he is really doing it for himself. In particular, he uses people to betray Hamlet, first beginning with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, who are asked to investigate Hamlet’s ‘lunacy.’ Claudius and Gertrude promises them a ‘king’s remembrance’ if they are successful in their investigation. Claudius’ bribery of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern implies that Claudius knows and understands people, and their motivations. It appears that Hamlet’s friends which to raise and further their status, and Claudius exploits this character trait to use it for his own purposes, making him a manipulative, but effective leader of others. This same exploitation can be seen in the case of Ophelia, who is too used to find out information about Hamlet’s ‘transformation.’ In act three scene one, she is subject to verbal abuse from Hamlet, which provides a helpful result for Claudius, as he notes that Hamlet’s words ‘lacked form a little,’ leading him to believe that he is not mad. Claudius begins to suspect that Hamlet knows his secret, and employs several other characters skillfully to investigate him, in order to protect himself. His subtlety in doing to emphasises his skills at leadership, as well as manipulation, as it is clear that he is able to coerce people into doing his bidding. AC Bradley notes that Claudius uses Laertes with ‘great dexterity,’ as he pushes him to kill Hamlet, and ‘avenge’ the death of Polonius. Claudius manipulates Laertes into this action, by challenging his ‘love’ for his father, and implying that he does care for his ‘honour.’ However, it is clear Laertes does, as he operates under the Roman tradition of ‘Fame’ in which a father’s murder would be avenged by his son, to maintain family honour. Claudius’ skillful use and deployment of other characters in the play for his own ends display him as an effective leader, but not necessarily as a good or moral man.
Claudius’ act of murder must be discussed, as it is the ‘foul and most unnatural murder’ of old King Hamlet that is the driving force behind most action within the play. Although Claudius may be a successful leader, this does not make him a good man, as as the play progresses, he can be seen to lose his control and grip on Denmark. In his only soliloquy, in act three scene three, he notes that he has committed the ‘primal eldest curse.’ He likens his act to the killing of Abel by Cain, which in the Bible, is described as the first murder. This emphasises the grotesque nature of Claudius’ action, and also implies that it has been weighing heavily on his mind. While delivering this speech in the 2017 Harrow School production, Claudius appeared to wretch, as if the rot inside him was killing him, and was rising up like vomit, implying that his actions had caused an illness, that has infected the ‘state of Denmark.’ Richard D Altick notes that it is the ‘cunning and lecherousness’ of Claudius that does indeed effect Elsinore, and it is this act that causes the growth of the ‘unweeded garden’ in the play. The Ghost notes that Claudius is the ‘serpent’ who ‘stung’ him, and this phrasing is used as in Elizabethan England, venom was thought to be stored in the tongue of the snake. This depiction of Claudius as Satan, likening him to the snake in the Garden of Eden, emphasises the nature of his ‘offense,’ and it understandable that Claudius begins to feel like he is losing control in Denmark, despite his skills at being a leader. After the death of Polonius, he finds no other solution to the situation other than to kill Hamlet, and hoping that ‘England’ will do it. Claudius begins to take such drastic actions to guard his secret, and realises that things are becoming more difficult at every turn. He appears affected by the madness of Ophelia in act four scene five, as he notes that it ‘springs from her father’s death.’ Claudius realises that the repercussions of Polonius’ death, and the news that Hamlet was responsible for it has sent ramifications throughout the court, and that he must now deal with it. He worries about Ophelia, due to the ‘pestilent speeches’ she may have heard, as this could lead to the incrimination of himself. Claudius appears to be losing control of people at this point, as can also be seen with Gertrude, in the Harrow School production, where she began to turn away from him. Claudius’ effective skills as a leader can be seen to wane, as he begins to lose control of people and the actions within the court, due to his previous immoral actions.
When examining Claudius’ soliloquy, one could argue that Claudius, despite his powerful leadership, is a weak man. It appears that Claudius feels he cannot be forgiven for the murder, as he is still ‘possess’d’ by the ‘effects for which I did the murder.’ Claudius does not seem to care about the death of his brother, but more cares about what he has gained from it, making him appear to be a man of low morals, and a weak willed one, who is only interested in material things. When apologising in prayer, he notes that ‘words without thought never to heaven go.’ It is clear that Claudius does not show repentance for his actions, as he is more concerned with what he has gained from it, making him appear to be a weak willed man who is only interested in power. The objects of this is his ‘crown,’ which he notes first in his list of three explaining his gains. This emphasises the importance of it to him, implying that he appreciates the power he has inherited from his brothers’ murder. This directly makes Claudius appear immoral, despite his effective leadership skills, as he seems only concerned with power, and is prepared to murder for it. This can be seen in the play, with his decision to kill Hamlet in order to maintain his position as King of Denmark. Gertrude is noted last in the triplet, which could be seen to downplay his love for her. This idea is further explored when he meekly tells her ‘not to ‘drink’ at the end of the play. If he did truly love her, should he not have tried harder to prevent her death? This points and supports the idea that Claudius is a weak man, who was perhaps jealous of his brother’s power, which led him to murder. This contrasts with Claudius’ strong leadership, as behind it appears a man who is only concerned with his own ‘ambition’ and advancement, making him appear to be a weak and despotic figure, who is prepared to murder for power.
It is clear in the play that Claudius is able to lead and use people for his own gains, and although this can be seen as morally dubious, it does not encroach on the fact that he is a good leader, and is able to entice people to do his bidding. However, when examining Claudius as a man, it appears that he is not so strong, as he appears to be a weak man only obsessed with the power that he can gain. It is clear that he unforgiving and unrepentant for the murder of his brother, and that he most appreciates the royal status and power that he has gained from it. However, it is this action that causes his undoing, as even he realises that he cannot control the ramifications of his own actions, making Claudius, in the end, a weak man who has lost control of Denmark.
 All quotes from:
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2016).