The Eldest Curse- The Murder of a Brother

Claudius’ soliloquy in 3.3.36-72 reveals his wanting of forgiveness for the crime that he committed, but also how he does not regret what he did. Claudius reveals himself to be Cain, and that he has brought upon himself the “primal eldest curse,” and will do everything in his power to keep the throne and rule over Denmark as Dane.

            In this passage Shakespeare characterizes Claudius as a version Cain, and his soliloquy is his defense of why he murdered his brother. Claudius, like Cain, killed his brother out of jealousy; yet unlike Cain, Claudius killed the Dane also for power and for his desire for Gertrude. As he prays, he recognizes this, because he finds that he cannot bring his hands together in prayer; which then leads him to conclude that the stench of his crime has reached Heaven’s Gates and offends God’s nose.

             The evidence that we see as Claudius being portrayed as Cain is when he says as he prays, “It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder” (3.3.37-38), which is an allusion to when Cain slew Abel. Yet, what Shakespeare does with Claudius’ soliloquy is that Claudius, being Cain, is apologizing, or defending his actions. He feels remorse for what he did, stating: “What if this cursed hand/ Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,/ Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens/To wash it white as snow?”(3.3.43-46). He wishes for Heaven to clean his hand of his brother’s blood, which in turns purifies his soul of his crime. And being Cain, Claudius is left in a way with a Mark of his crime: “O bosom black as death, / O limed soul that, struggling to be free, / Art more engaged!” (3.3.67-69). Much of the language that Claudius uses within these portions, and more, of his soliloquy appeal to the literary device of imagery, specifically the  sense of sight, causing the audience to see what Claudius sees.

            As Claudius continues to pray, he tells Heaven how “Pray can I not, / Though inclination be sharp as will: / My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent…” (3.3.38-40). What he means is that he wants to pray, but his desire to remain in power over Denmark outweighs his intention to be forgiven by God. He is conflicted by both his desire and his guilt, but ultimately, it is his desire that wins. This foreshadows what his ambition will eventually lead up to at the end of the play, when his ambition gets not only him killed, but also Prince Hamlet and Queen Gertrude, leaving Denmark’s throne open for the taking by Fortinbras. Thus, the “primal eldest curse” (3.3.37) of Cain being avenged seven-fold is fulfilled with Claudius’ death.

            We continue to see the King’s remorse throughout his prayer: “Whereto serves mercy/ But to confront the visage of offense? / And what’s in prayer but this twofold force, / To be forestalled ere we come to fall, / Or pardoned being down? / Then I’ll look up. / My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer/ Can serve my turn? / “Forgive me my foul murder”?” (3.3.46-52). Here, we see how Claudius question’s God’s mercy if its only is to face his sin? And in facing his sin, pardon must be given looking down, as in one does in the act of prayer. Yet Claudius cannot look down, so he chooses to look up to God. He continues with stating how fault is in his past, but what type of prayer will help him ask for the redemption of his soul.


            Though Claudius says all this, he goes on to state that no form of prayer can help him because “…I am still possessed/ Of those effects for which I did the murder: / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” (3.3.53-55). His want for the crown and his ambition to be king, along with his desire for Queen Gertrude are what are stopping him from being able to kneel in humility and repentance. Further on, he calls upon the angels to help him with his prayer: “Help angels! Make assay” (3.3.69); and he orders his knees to bend, and for his hardened heart to become flexible like that of a baby’s: “Bow stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel, / Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!” (3.3.70-71). Shakespeare uses apostrophe here when the King Claudius demands his knees to bend. The King does eventually fall to his knees in prayer, but he never brings forth his hands and clasps together.

            At the end of Claudius’ soliloquy, we, the audience and reader, see that he does have the intention to ask for forgiveness, but his heart is not in it fully. We also see how Shakespeare portrays Claudius as a version of Cain. Yet, Shakespeare makes Claudius into an ambitious Cain, rather than the Cain of the Bible, who was jealous of his brother Abel. Throughout the monologue of the Dane, we see religious allusions, but primarily that of Catholic origins. For example, Claudius wants to pray for forgiveness because, should he die without being forgiven, then his soul would be damned to Hell. This is the religious allusion to the Catholic practice of the Last Rites, where an individual on their death bed is absolved of their sins. We assume that Claudius does not receive forgiveness for his crime, and at the end of the play, he dies a violent and painful death. One can assume, that this foreshadows of what awaits him in the Otherworld.



Works Cited 

            Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." Ed. David Bevington. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 12th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. 1396-506. Print.


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