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Brady Moe

ENG 120
Dr. Whitney

Claudius in the Inferno

In order to deter people from acting immorally, society often relies on two things to make
the person reconsider their choice. First, society relies on its laws, hoping that the fear of
retribution and punishment is enough to deter, say, a thief from stealing or a murderer from
killing. If this is insufficient motive to stop immoral actions, then one hopes a second reason can
prevent these people: the fear of God and, consequently, the fear of Hell. When people dread that
their actions in one life will have eternal ramifications, they then refrain from acting in any way
that could cause such punishment. To propagate this fear, depictions of Hell have been created,
often in disturbing detail, to create a vivid image of what Hell and all its tortures will entail. One
of these depictions is Dantes Inferno, which shows, level by level, the horrors associated with
specific acts. Using the example of Claudius from Hamlet, this paper will show which level of
Hell his actions condemn him to, whether this punishment is fair, and how the Inferno should be
properly ordered.
It often seems that the most guilty and morally corrupt individuals in Shakespeare tend to
be royalty or positions of power. Whether it be Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear, it seems that,
when Shakespeare character has power or wishes to have power, they seek to the lowest level to

attain or retain that power. In Hamlet, Claudius is no exception, as he takes morally decrepit
actions to achieve his authority, and, when he feels that position threatened, he pursues any
avenue he can to preserve it. Claudius began his path to wickedness when, to usurp the throne
of Denmark for himself, snuck up on King Hamlet while he slept in the garden and poured
poison into his ear, thus ending the former kings reign. With the late king now out of his way,
Claudius takes the throne for himself and marries Hamlets widow, Gertrude. However, when
Claudius believes that his nephew Hamlet is beginning to realize the truth of what actually
happened, Claudius attempts whatever he can to get him out of the way. First, he attempts to
send Hamlet along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England, where Hamlet will be
executed. When this fails, he plots with Laertes to have Laertes kill Hamlet in a duel with
poisoned daggers. In addition, Claudius, as a backup, plans on having poisoned wine ready to
kill Hamlet. However, Claudius plan backfires, as Gertrude drinks the wine he had intended for
Hamlet, and Hamlet ends up killing Laertes with the poisoned dagger. When all this is revealed,
Hamlet kills Claudius, ending his power grabbing ways.
It is doubtless that Claudius would be condemned to one of the levels of Hell, as he has
many sins to atone for. First and perhaps most obviously, Claudius is guilty of the murder of not
only King Hamlet, but is responsible for the death of Gertrude, and could arguably be held liable
for the deaths of Laertes and Hamlet. This would be the sin of violence, and punishable to the
Seventh level of Hell. Second, Claudius is guilty of greed, as his relentless and addicted pursuit
of power consumed him. This would theoretically place him in the Fourth Circle of Hell. Third,
given the short time between King Hamlets death and Gertrudes marriage to Claudius, in

addition to how quickly both of them got over the former kings death, it is doubtful that
Claudius actions werent, in some part, motivated by his desire for Gertrude. This would make
Claudius guilty of lustfulness, and thus condemnable to the Second Circle of Hell. Fourth, since
Claudius influenced Laertes into killing Hamlet on his behalf, Claudius is guilty of seducing
Laertes to do his bidding. Under this sin, Claudius would be punished in the Eighth Circle.
Finally, as Claudius, in murdering King Hamlet, betrayed not only his lord, but also his brother,
is guilty of treachery. This would make him punishable in the Ninth Circle for treachery, either
to the First Ring for betraying his brother, or the Fourth Circle for betraying his king.
Any one of these sins would be sufficient to condemning Claudius to a level of Hell. As
such, it would be acceptable to place Claudius anywhere from the Second Circle for lustfulness
to the Ninth Circle for treachery. However, since the most egregious of Claudius crimes was the
murder of his king and brother Hamlet, Claudius would be condemned to the Ninth Circle of
Hell. Within this Circle, Claudius would be sentenced to the worst ring of the Ninth Circle, the
Fourth Ring, reserved for those who betrayed their lords. As such, Claudius would be
condemned to an eternity frozen from head to foot, never to escape. One might counter that
Claudius crime is more of a betrayal of his kin, as he killed King Hamlet, who was his brother,
and thus the First Ring of the Ninth Circle would be a more accurate place for Claudius.
However, this paper contends that Claudius actions were more befitting of murder of a lord, as
Claudius took the action not only to rid the throne of the current ruler, but also to usurp the
former kings power and take it for himself. Therefore, the most fitting punishment for Claudius
would be the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle.

However, the question comes up of whether Dantes order of the Inferno is appropriate
and an accurate ranking of the depravity of each individuals actions. Dantes order of sins is
consistent with the theological beliefs of the time, and, as such. Dantes Hell would reflect how
the Church viewed sins in terms of immorality. Hence, one sees that sins against nature and God
are punished more severely than sins against yourself or your fellow man (assuming that man is
not kin or lord). Dante would have viewed a sin against nature, such as sodomy, worse than
violence against others or ones self because the latter two would have only condemned the
sinner to Hell, whereas the sodomite condemns themselves and their partner to Hell. Similarly,
Dante felt those who induced people into unfair financial situations were more deserving of
retribution than those guilty of violent actions. Again, the reason being that their actions not only
benefitted only the sinner, but hurt the victim.
However, contemporary standards would indicate a much different ranking. First,
sodomy or homosexuality should be punished much less severely, if at all. A majority of people
today would no longer consider homosexuality a sin, as they view it a private matter of love
between two individuals. Even Christianity no longer remains at hostile to homosexuality today
as it did in Dantes day, meaning they would no longer punish sodomy as harshly today as they
did then. Second, the ring of Hell punishing violence, particularly those who are violent against
others, should be lower than the current Eight Ring, full of seducers, frauds, and thieves. While
both involve an individual finding a victim to perform their action on, violence, particularly
murder, deprives an individual of their greatest right, the right to life. Anything else, whether it
be money or any other property, falls secondary to this. As such, those condemned for homicide

should be lower on the list. Finally, the rankings should have those who betray family receiving
more punishment than those that betray their lords. While it is reprehensible to kill a ruler, be it a
king, president, or lord, the immorality it requires to betray ones own flesh and blood is of an
injustice far greater than killing a lord.
Hell will remain an imposing figure; an illustration of the negative repercussions our
actions can have on us. Whether it be the relatively minor crime of petty theft, or the heavier
crime of murder, those who belief in some form of an afterlife will constantly fear that their
actions will lead them to an eternal punishment. In Dantes Inferno, a vision of Hell is depicted,
one that shows not only how each sin is punished, but which sins are considered more depraved
than others. Using the example of Claudius, this paper shows that, under Dantes standard, he
would receive a punishment befitting that of someone who betrayed their lord. However, the
order and ranking of Dantes Inferno, while horrifying, is incompatible with contemporary
standards, and should be revised to better fit changing values.

I state that this assignment is my own, original work.