A Mix-tape for Claudius (Hamlet Final Project)

by Ryan (Chopsy) Harrison beneaththefloorboards.com

Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing. – Rob Gordon (John Cusack) in High Fidelity

I made a mix-tape for an old boyfriend once. We were caught in an increasingly miserable long-distance relationship, and I wanted him to feel loved. I spent hours crafting it, in some sad last-ditch effort to fix…anything. In the end he listened to it once and told me that he didn’t get it. Truth was, he didn’t really get me either. I took it back when we broke up, because it was wonderful and I loved it (and myself) more than he ever could anyway. Plus, it was just so much fun to make.

Making a mix-tape in the digital age is not nearly as much fun as it once was (though it is more simple to transfer a file from one i-pod to another). Regardless of the format, a mix-tape still requires a great amount of thought and planning. You have to consider the person you are making it for, why you are giving it to them, and also the vibe you are trying to get across. The best mix-tape, just like a well-written character is full of complexities that give it its strength. In order for the audience to fully realize the power, each individual song or nuance must be examined one by one. So it makes sense then, that I have made you a mix-tape of sorts to analyze the character of Claudius from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.” This mix-tape is intricate (and perhaps a little fun), so bear with me till the end.

Track 1: Megalomania by Black Sabbath

The mix-tape starts off with Claudius’ theme song in order to set off the mood. I think Ozzy said it best in Black Sabbath’s song Megalomania when he sings, “My body echoed to the dreams of my soul/It started something that I could not control.” This sums up Claudius’ nicely…or does it? Let’s be honest, Claudius is a villain. Any man who would kill his own brother in order to steal his power could never be anything less. His deeds are self-serving and borderline megalomaniacal. Claudius even confesses his sins in Act 3 saying, “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t…” (Shakespeare, 128). Even so, this self-proclaimed villain has more depth and humanity in him than your average fratricidal king, though he is (appropriately) tragically flawed.

Track 2: Ballad of a Politician by Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor’s haunting song about a modern day politician is an apt next choice; not only because of the slight goosebumps it gives the listener, but also because Claudius was an incredible politician. Spektor sings, “A man inside a room is shaking hands with other men/This is how it happens/Our world under command” Kings were, after all, the original politicians and had a public face that was (more often than not) much more noble than the one they wore privately. Claudius enters the play during Scene 2 of Act 1 and gives a stirring speech to the members of his court. He is just silver-tongued enough to convince them that he is devastated by his brother’s loss, “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death The Memory be green, and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief…” (Shakespeare, 62). He also tells them about his brave deeds in holding off Fortinbras’ territorial advances on their kingdom. Claudius proves himself publicly to be a fitting replacement for the dead king.

Track 3: Oh Very Young by Cat Stevens

Perverse though his family relationships may be, Claudius is still a family man. He stepped in and married his brother’s wife after King Hamlet’s death in order to hold the kingdom together, and took on a fatherly role to young Hamlet (the success of both are, of course, questionable). He makes an attempt in Scene 2 of Act 1 to try to break Hamlet out of the funk caused by his father’s death. Claudius tells Hamlet, ” ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father, But you must know your father lost a father, That father lost, lost his…”(Shakespeare, 65). Cat Stevens has a slightly different intention when he sings, “Oh very young/What will you leave us this time?/You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while,” though both are paralleled in warning that life is short and someone is always left behind.

Track 4: Crying in the Chapel by Elvis Presley

Elvis sings a simple gospel song, “I’ve searched and I’ve searched/But I couldn’t find/No way on earth/To gain peace of mind.” In Scene 3 of Act 3 after Hamlet tests Claudius’ guilt with a play that mirrors his deeds, Claudius leaves and seeks out God. In a rare moment of piety he says, “Help, angels! Make assay. Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel, Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe. All may be well” (Shakespeare, 129). He then kneels to pray. Claudius is clearly struggling with what he has done, and his guilt is weighing on him heavily. Seeking out God shows that there is a small sliver of conscience left in him.

Track 5: Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked by Cage the Elephant

We are now coming to the middle of the mix-tape, so it is time for a rocker and a bit of a change of pace. Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked is also in perfect contrast to the last song, “Oh no I can’t slow down,/I can’t hold back/Though you know, I wish, I could,/Oh no there ain’t no rest for the wicked,/Until we close our eyes for good.” This characterizes the instantaneous shift Claudius goes through perfectly. After he is done praying, he realizes that he doesn’t want to repent because he would have to give up his power and his wife (who I believe he truly loves) in the process. He realizes that he has already gone too far and says, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Shakespeare, 129). And with that, his conscience pangs him no more.

Track 6: Revolution by The Beatles

In all honesty, I could have done this entire project with Beatles songs because of their interesting grasp of humanity, but then it wouldn’t have been a mix-tape. I added Revolution to the mix because it is a platitude, “But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out/Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right.” In Scene 5 of Act 4, Claudius masterfully convinces Laertes to abandon his plans to revolt and kill him. He tells Laertes that he knows who killed Polonius, but it wasn’t him (Claudius). His strength even in the face of destruction is almost admirable. Of course, he patronizes Laertes a bit first, “Why, now you speak like a good child and a true gentleman. That I am guiltless of your father’s death” (Shakespeare, 149). Not long after, Claudius turns Laertes into a co-conspirator against Hamlet using the same patronizing tone (and Laertes is desperately in need of guidance).

Track 7: Feeling Good by Muse (though this is only a cover song)

Muse brings a whole new feeling to this song with the slight change of pacing and Matthew Bellamy’s piercing falsetto. It mirrors the exact feeling of the entire end scene of the play – all the lust, pain, and grief. Claudius’ has finally become the Megalomaniacal villian, and it backfires horribly. He is so wrapped up in his plans for revenge that he can’t even muster the words required to save his wife. He says flatly, “Gertrude, do not drink” (Shakespeare, 178). If he had simply grabbed the cup from her hand she would have been spared, but his hatred and ambition blinded him. To save her was to reveal his plot. Of course, because it is a tragedy, the schemer has to die as a result of his treachery. Only after everyone dies do the lyrics to the song become clear, “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life.” Though the new day is for Denmark since Claudius (and Hamlet) is dead.

Track 8: I Can’t Decide by Scissor Sisters

“Don’t want to be a bad guy/I’m just a loner baby/And now you’re gotten in my way/I can’t decide/Whether you should live or die…”

Track 9: Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters

“What have we done with innocence/It disappeared with time, it never made much sense/Adolescent resident/Wasting another night on planning my revenge…”

The last two songs were added mostly because of the perfection of their lyrics. Hamlet could easily have sung either one of these songs at Claudius during one of his angsty rants. Claudius was a supremely horrible man, but his complexity and duality is what makes him so interesting to me. Pigeonhole him if you will, but the most important lesson here is that Claudius was (eerily) human. Even the best person can see parallels between Claudius and their own lives, which is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius. I truly hope that you have enjoyed the mix-tape for Claudius as much as I enjoyed making it.

P.S. My wonderful husband Ryan (Chopsy) Harrison is the artist that drew the picture of Claudius above. If you are interested in seeing more of his artwork, his website is here. Also, I would love to hear any and all songs you think could have been included and why. With billions of songs to choose from, I am sure there are some I have missed. Start the discussion!

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