Hamlet Something is Rotten (3)





Hamlet: Something is Rotten

Hamlet is among the most read plays by Shakespeare that looks into revenge and how the characters in the play go through grief but are also able to stay loyal. Two main characters in the play are Hamlet and Laertes. From these amazing masterpieces of literature, we see Shakespeare bringing upon calamity after calamity to the protagonist Hamlet. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare can employ various figurative languages, actions as well as dialogues in bringing out the various theme as well as building characters of both the protagonists, antagonists and minor characters in the play. From the play, Shakespeare brings out the theme of physical as well as psychological decay and corruption that had engulfed Denmark. In Act 1 Scene 4, Marcellus states that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Shakespeare1.4 87-91). In this essay, we analyze the meaning of this statement and the ideas and themes surrounding the quote.

“Something is rotten in Denmark” is a quote that seems to foreshadow the main theme revolving in the play which is that of corruption and decay. Marcellus who utters these words is just a mere guard but he understands that everything in Denmark is not okay. The theme of corruption and decay is an issue Shakespeare tackled during his period as the play Othello and Macbeth also have the theme of decay. The quote can be interpreted to mean that Marcellus thought that the politics in Denmark was not right thus the use of the term rotten. It also indicates the various moral decay that existed in Denmark including incest, revenge, and betrayal. In the play, the ruling class constitutes of leaders who were rotten to the core. A good example of a leader who lacked morals was Claudius who had to murder his brother before taking over his kingdom. His level of greediness and thirst for power could not allow him to see his brother who was the legitimate ruler ruling the kingdom and thus he had to dethrone him. This is an act of corruption as the ghost says “the fat weed that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf” (Shakespeare, 1.5 33-34). The statement compared Claudius to a weed and the ghost points out that Claudius is going to destroy Denmark (Ajo, pg. 37-106).

Claudius is not only a murderer but also a manipulator as well as a hypocrite. Laertes wants revenge for the death of his father and goes to Claudius for help. Claudius uses this opportunity to direct all his hidden motives towards Hamlet. He builds rage and spite in Laertes towards Hamlet. At the end of the act, however, when Laertes confronts Hamlet, Claudius exclaims “How much I had to do to calm his rage!” (Shakespeare,4.7 210) This statement clearly shows his hypocrisy as he had done the opposite. Claudius is involved in many schemes such as sending Hamlet to England where he was to be executed and later trying to poison him. For a leader of his caliber, it is sad that he gets to engage in such foolery. It is such action from the King that eventually leads to the conquering of Denmark by Fortinbras as they wanted to attack Poland.

Shakespeare also uses a play within a play to booth forecast the rot as well as moral decay in Denmark in Act III the “play-within-a-play,” the plot is almost identical to the actions in the kingdom of Denmark, that is, to the murder of Old Hamlet. The play begins with the king and his wife having a conversation and the queen swears to never marry another man if anything ever happens to the king. This conversation and affection between the king and queen render Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, very nervous and guilty. The actions in this “play-within-a-play” are ironical since the king is seen being murdered in an exact manner that Old Hamlet was killed by Claudius- by pouring poison in his ear. After seeing this scene, King Claudius is stunned, and cannot stand to watch the play. He asks for the lights and the play is halted. His actions to halt the play are an indication he is aware of his acts that’s why he wants it halted. Corruption seems unchecked in Denmark and keeps so reading this destroying the social order (Magnus, pg. 180-200).

Polinus who is a character in the play has also been used by Shakespeare to portray the rot in Denmark. Polinus is a corrupt leader who was once a senior counselor to royalty. He sets up schemes and gets spies to look into his son. He eventually contributes to the plotting as well as the final execution of Hamlet. Shakespeare uses the stench of his body to show the fall of one corrupt leader whose death was retribution of his actions. Polinus is abusive towards Ophelia and seems to want to control and dominate her life decisions. His character shows the rot on Denmark in terms of how they treated women and the position that the women held in society. Women seem to be treated as a second had citizens as the society is largely patriarchal.

Incest a theme that is portrayed in the play. Claudius who is Hamlet’s uncle marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Family members are not allowed to marry each other and the fact that a queen marries the brother to his former husband shows the depth of moral decay in Denmark (Sharmin, pg. 25-32). In Act 3 scene 4 hamlet tells his mother that she was living “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty.” (Shakespeare, 3.4 100-104) Her mother’s action leads to Hamlet’s faith in women being destroyed and we can see him becoming ambivalent towards Ophelia. Throughout the play, Gertrude does not seem to have remorse, only in act III does she portray guilt as she tries to pray but she is still not able to put her heart into it. Incest is an act that is morally wrong in society and for a king and queen to engage in it, then this shows the rot in Denmark.

The minor characters in the play too are used to portray the moral decay in Denmark. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern allow the crown to blindly manipulate them. They do not understand the meaning of loyalty and friendship. During their first interaction with Hamlet, the moment is seen to be both unanticipated but yet hopeful. Hamlet, however, is not quick to trust and suspect that the two may have a hidden reason as to why they may have visited and later discovers they only visited him under orders. Hamlet is disappointed but still grateful. Hamlet refers to their call as a “visitation” to infer that he is treated as a prisoner. In the second interaction, Hamlet confronts Guildenstern and states, “Oh, the recorders. Let me see one. To withdraw with you, why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil?” (3.2. 329-331). This time around, Hamlet does not hesitate to let them know that they are genuine in their visits.

Hamlet who is the king is filled with anger and with the desire to avenge the fact that his uncle Claudius married his mother. It is this anger that drives him to want to kill Claudius. This anger and need for revenge lead him to mistakenly killing Polonius who was hiding behind arras. It is this mistake that results in his death as Laertes seeks to revenge the death of his father. it results in Ophelia becoming crazy and is the tipping point for Claudius. Although Hamlet wants to kill Claudius with all his heart when he gets the chance. he refuses to take it citing that he could not do it since Claudius was praying. Hamlet believes that you should not commit a crime to someone when this person is performing a good deed. I agree with him and regard this as a genuine excuse because Hamlet does not only want Claudius to suffer on earth but also in the afterlife (Foakes, pg. 85-99). He hesitates from killing Claudius since if he did, then Claudius would go to heaven since he would be murdered praying, but he desires for Claudius to suffer eternally, in hell. The presence of a ghost in the text shows also something is not right in Denmark (Watson, pg. 199-233). The ghost seems to also be hell-bent in ensuring Hamlet gets revenge. Although he knows Claudius is wrong his push for revenge leads hamlet into having erratic behaviors that contribute to his calamities.

Aside from the characters and themes in the story, the play incorporates diseases of blood, ulcers, pleurisy, and pustules to paint an image that everything was not okay in Denmark. The plants too are affected as the land is covered by weed and there are plant diseases including mildew blight and canker. An image of a country where all these is present is an indication all is not well and the leaders may be neglecting their people (Altick, pg. 167-176). In the play, Hamlet states that the air that he breathes is “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors,” (Shakespeare, 2.2 (297-298). The statement creates disgust for this place as well as the situation. Imagery of decay has been heavily employed to change the various atmosphere of the text and give a vivid idea of how Denmark had become a faked nation due to administration by corrupt leaders (Grønbæk, pg. 201-213). Diseases have often been linked to death and in the same way, Denmark is a society destined for doomed.

In conclusion, everything was not okay in Denmark. The leaders including the King himself Claudius are corrupt to the core. Shakespeare can build the characters and the plot showing how corrupt they are and their level of moral decay. The imagery of decay has been heavily employed to change the various atmosphere of the text and give a vivid idea of how Denmark had become a failed nation due to administration by corrupt leaders. Shakespeare’s literary skills to be able to weave the motif to a play is an indication of how genius he was in creating masterpiece writings and playwrights.

Works Cited

Ajo García, Rubén. “An Analysis of King Claudius in Two Contemporary Performances of Hamlet.” (2018).

Altick, Richard D. “Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality.” Shakespeare Quarterly 5.2 (1954): 167-176.

Grønbæk, Justine. “Servile power: When something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Power and Education 1.2 (2009): 201-213.

Foakes, Reginald A. “Hamlet’s Neglect for Revenge.” Hamlet: New Critical Essays (2013): 85-99.

Magnus, Laury. “Tragic Closure in Hamlet.” (2001): 180-200.

Shakespeare, William. Tragedy of Hamlet, prince of Denmark. SR Winchell & Company, 1885.

Sharmin, Sonia. “The Tragedy of Sexuality in Hamlet.” Annals of Language and Literature 2.3 (2018): 25-32.

Watson, Robert N. “Giving up the Ghost in a World of Decay:” Hamlet”, Revenge, and Denial.” Renaissance Drama 21 (1990): 199-223.