Appearance and reality
Claudius: The fatherly and wise king
Claudius' behavior at the beginning of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” already shows the difference between appearance and reality at court. At this point, even the audience is unaware of Claudius' devious fratricide. Claudius is very concerned with maintaining the appearance of a peaceful ruler. He responds to the threat of war by the young Norwegian prince Fortinbras with a diplomatic letter (1.2.27), flatters his servant Polonius with a little eulogy, and pretends to be sincerely concerned about Hamlet's welfare (1.2.118-120). He even describes his affection for Hamlet as fatherly love.
In his public wedding speech, Claudius hypocritically pretends that he is still mourning his brother's death, but that now - as a wise king - he must continue unhindered with the business of governing and end the public period of mourning: "Although the memory of Hamlet's death, our dear brother, is still fresh (...) nature has fought judgment to such an extent that we remember it with wise sorrow, at the same time remembering ourselves" (1.2.1-7).
Claudius: The smiling villain
Claudius is in reality a traitor and a murderer whose greed for power has driven him so far that he even murdered his own brother for it. He is overly selfish, brutal, and unscrupulous. However, it is not easy for the court society and the Danish people to see his true nature. To the outside world, Claudius presents himself as a good-natured, peaceful, and fatherly ruler.
Hamlet is not fond of Claudius even before the revelation of the ghost. However, he does not seem to suspect anything yet, but only regrets that Polonius has persuaded Gertrude to marry again (Act 1; Scene II). When Hamlet learns soon after how deviously and cold-bloodedly his father was murdered by Claudius, he must visibly struggle for composure: "O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tables,--meet it is I set it down, That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain" (1.5.114). He clearly did not see through his uncle's hypocritical game before and is now honestly surprised by Claudiu...