Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Claudius

Who was the real Claudius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet play?

Did Shakespeare base his Claudius character on a real person?

If so, who?

Patrick Stewart as Claudius
with David Tennant

Whom did Shakespeare know in his lifetime that would seem to fit the character of Hamlet’s uncle, the man who murdered his father, and who marries her mother, Gertrude?

As I wrote recently, Shakespeare based his Hamlet character on at least two men he knew personally, the Earl of Essex and King James. 

Also, Shakespeare based his Gertrude character on at least 3 different women: Queen Elizabeth I, and her cousins, Lettice Knollys and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Essex’s father may have been poisoned to death by the Earl of Leicester, who then married Essex’s mother, Lettice Knollys.

King James’s father may have been murdered (in a garden as was Hamlet’s father) by the Earl of Bothwell, who then married Mary, Queen of Scots.

So, is Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the real Claudius?

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Or is James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the real Claudius?

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

Or is it both?

Leicester, who died in 1588, shortly after the great victory over the Spanish Armada, had been the most powerful man in England. He was Queen Elizabeth’s first and arguably most favoured royal “favourite.”

He had a reputation for violence, and was even suspected in having murdered his wife, Amy Robsart, in order to improve his chance at marrying Elizabeth.

Years later, he was rumoured to be having an affair with Lettice Knollys, even during the period of time when she conceived her son, Essex.

Some time later, Essex’s father, while on duty as Earl Marshal of Ireland, died. The fact that Essex’s father was a soldier may be significant, since Hamlet’s father appears in armour.


There were suspicions that Leicester poisoned him, but an medical examination concluded that no foul play was done. How an examination could be unbiased as it related to Leicester — the Queen’s favourite, and the most powerful man in England — is open to debate.

Whether or not Essex’s father was really murdered or not is almost beside the point. The point is that Essex grew up with some doubt — even if it was the smallest seed of doubt — about who his step-father was. Was he a serial murderer? Did he kill his first wife and Essex’s father? Or was he truly innocent?

The scene in the Hamlet play that perhaps best describes the gnawing doubt which Essex must have suffered regarding Leicester’s guilt or innocence is in Act 3 Scene 3, when Claudius prays about his having murdered Hamlet’s father. 

Claudius at prayer

Claudius confesses to murder, but only the audience hears it. At that point we the audience know more than Hamlet himself. Hamlet only has the ghost of his father’s word that Claudius murdered him.

If only Hamlet had entered a moment sooner he would have heard the truth, and probably would have plunged his dagger into Claudius, whether he was praying on his knees or not.

But Hamlet enters only to see a man silently at prayer. Hamlet struggles whether to kill him or not, and decides against it.

Essex must have spent his entire life with creeping suspicions about Leicester, probably in the much the same way that King James would have struggled over the murder of his father.

King James was a child when his father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered. Bothwell was immediately suspected of the murder, and so was James’s mother, Mary.

Mary did nothing to repair her reputation, and certainly did nothing to clear Bothwell of guilt, when she was either abducted or she ran off with Bothwell. To make matters worse, she married Bothwell, about 3 months after her husband had been killed.

It seems that Bothwell’s and Mary’s guilt is much more clear, but it must have been something that haunted James. And despite how he may have felt about his mother, she was his mother, and it would be hard for him to entirely abandon any love or affection for her.

So, are Leicester and Bothwell both Claudius?

I think there is one more candidate.

But first — why did Shakespeare give the character the name Claudius?

Shakespeare based his Hamlet play on an old Scandanavian legend, in which King Horwendil is murdered by Feng, who wants to take his throne and his queen, Gerutha. The king’s son is Amleth.

Shakespeare changed Amleth to Hamlet, Gerutha to Gertrude, and King Horwendil to King Hamlet. These changes seem natural, without mystery.

But why did Shakespeare change Feng to Claudius?

Of all the names Shakespeare could have chosen, he chose the name Claudius. Why?

Emperor Claudius

It may be that Claudius in Hamlet is based on Emperor Claudius, whose incestuous marriage to his niece Agrippina is similar but significantly different to Claudius’s not really incestuous marriage to Gertrude. 

Agrippina also was believed to have poisoned Claudius, which is also similar, but significantly different than the events in Hamlet.

The fact that Agrippina was later murdered by her own son Nero, also seems relevant but is there anything in the Hamlet play to suggest that Hamlet really wanted to murder his mother?

Hamlet does refer to Nero: “let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.’

But Hamlet does not want to be “cruel” or murderous like Nero was: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.”

What perhaps is even more puzzling is why Shakespeare’s Claudius character would never be called Claudius by any character — in the entire play!

The name Claudius is not spoken even once. Why?

Perhaps the answer is found in the name Claudius itself. Claudius means “lame” and “crippled.”

Emperor Claudius was disabled with a limp, he had weak knees, and his body and head shook. He had a stammer and apparently slobbered when he spoke. 

It is believed that his disabilities made him appear unthreatening, and it probably saved him from being murdered by his enemies.

While the struggle for power raged on his entire life, he was overlooked as harmless, while he amassed enough power to one day seize control of the empire all for himself.

Was Robert Cecil the real Claudius?

There is one man whom Shakespeare knew who truly resembles Emperor Claudius in this regard — Robert Cecil, the Queen’s Secretary of State, and Lord Privy Seal.

When Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, as we know it today, was first performed in 1601, Cecil was the most powerful man in England. It can be argued that he was even more powerful than Queen Elizabeth herself.

All of her other great councillors, Lord Burghley (Cecil’s father), Christopher Hatton, Francis Walsingham, Leicester — all of them were dead. Only Cecil remained. Walter Raleigh was not in Her Majesty’s Council and had little political power. 

Also, Cecil was the unlikeliest man of all to assume such power. He was short, weak, and had a hunch-back. He was overlooked for much of his career at Court, but as the older men died off, he soon became the only one left, and he had amassed almost all the power of the government.

He was so powerful that almost single-handedly paved the way for King James to succeed to the throne after Queen Elizabeth died.


It has been commonly, and correctly, assumed that Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain King Richard III character was written as an unflattering depiction of Robert Cecil.

It was not uncommon for Shakespeare to write unflattering portrayals of Cecil. Cecil was the greatest nemesis that Shakespeare ever had because Cecil was the greatest nemesis that Essex ever had.

Shakespeare wrote plays for Essex. In that capacity, Shakespeare wrote plays to make Essex popular and Cecil not.

During Shakespeare’s career during the 1590s, there were two great factions in Elizabeth’s Court — the Essex faction and the Cecil faction. During those years, Essex was often away on military campaigns, while Cecil was back in Court, pouring poison into Elizabeth’s ear against Essex.

When Essex was executed in 1601, it was a great loss for the country. But it was a great victory for Robert Cecil. He was widely hated in the streets of London, and he feared for his life. To most Englishmen, Essex had been a hero and Cecil was a villain.

When audiences watched the first performance of the Hamlet play in 1601, after Essex had died, it was crystal clear whom Claudius represented. The crowds knew all too well that Cecil was Essex’s enemy, his greatest nemesis.

If there was any man the entire country whom the audience would have wanted to stab to death, it would have been Cecil.

In other words, if Shakespeare was not trying to draw a connection between Claudius and Cecil, he did a poor job of it.

Also, it may explain why no character in the play speaks the name Claudius. Shakespeare may have realized that the name Claudius would be too clear and direct a reference to Cecil, and Shakespeare would have every reason to fear the power of a man like Cecil after Essex died.

The first time that the Hamlet play was put into print was in 1603 — right after Queen Elizabeth had died, and after King James had become King of England.

But most importantly, it was printed right after King James had made Shakespeare a King’s Man, the official royal playwright to the King. His artistic patron was none other than the King of England.

Perhaps it was only then, when Shakespeare felt some security and safety, that Shakespeare felt confident to reveal the name Claudius in print.

Also, it is very likely that Shakespeare did not approve this printed version in 1603 which supports my theory that he did not want the public to know the name of the character for as long as possible. This also suggests that whoever may have perhaps stolen a copy of a playscript or wrote the play out from memory, that person knew the character’s name as Claudius. It was obviously an “inside job.”

In conclusion, just as Hamlet is based on several men, and Gertrude is based on several women, Claudius is clearly based on several men, the most important of which is Cecil.

If you would like to know more about why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, I invite you to read my version of the play.


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