Course Code and Title
Corruption and Death in Hamlet
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet builds the motif of disease in every scene signifying the corrupt state of Denmark and death of societal values and the Danish community. In the medieval era there was a communal belief that the health of a nation depended on the legitimacy of its king. With the King’s untimely demise, in Hamlet, the country is defined as poisoned, diseased and corrupt under the unlawful rulership of Claudius. Even though Denmark is unaware that Claudius executed their King, Shakespeare creates an ambience of anarchy to indicate the unsatisfied state of the citizens of Denmark. Of equal representation in the book is the presence of death. Death comes up as an outcome of revenge, hatred, dishonesty and selfish ambition. In analyzing the theme of corruption and death, this paper aims to elucidate on the state of Hamlet’s Denmark and its influence in the characters of Shakespeare’s book.
Hamlet is filled with images of disease such as ulcers, pleurisy, pustules, apoplexy as well as madness. These maladies are not only physical but also an indication of parallel sins and the deathly state of the country through insobriety, espionage, war, infidelity and murder. Hamlet describes Denmark’s air as “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (Shakespeare 2.2.263). Everybody in Hamlet’s Denmark is corrupted with disease. Hamlet himself showcases throughout the storyline his diseased will in seeking (in an unlawful way) to avenge his father’s death. His actions are an indication of lack of a means to rightfully seek justice over a wrong done. That is why the King’s death was not investigated. It may also indicate a heighted magnitude of lawlessness where citizens are legally unrestrained and, thus, act as they see fit. Indeed, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Shakespeare 1.4.90). The imagery depicted by Shakespeare shows a morally decaying society where “virtue itself ‘scapes not calumnious strokes: The canker galls the infants of the spring, too oft before their buttons be disclosed” (1.2.38-40).
In retrospect, Shakespeare could have been painting a picture of London’s state (his own environment) where every manner of disease had infiltrated the city. At the time, London was overcrowded, overflowing in raw sewage and with rat infestations. It was also the period of sexual promiscuity (Bell 26). Shakespeare’s time in London was characterized by diseases such as the plague, malaria, syphilis, small pox and so forth. Although he does not include any of the ailments prevalent in London, he illustrates the helpless state in which the city lies in relation to the disease outbreak. Similarly, Shakespeare uses this imagery to develop Hamlet’s Denmark. The improvised state in which the city lies as a result of bad leadership.
According to Boddenberg, “the first and central occurrence of corruption in Hamlet is the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius and his subsequent usurpation of the Danish”(12). Ironically, the muder is revealed by a ghost to Hamlet. Claudius the perpetrator does not stop there, he also proceeds to wed Hamlet’s mother Getrude. From an Elizabethan viewpoint, the marriage was not only regarded as adultery but also as incest. As Hamlet purports “Getrude married — O most wicked speed!…To post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good” (Shakespear 1.2.156-158). Therefore, now that “The serpent that did sting Hamlet’s father’s life Now wears his crown” the kingdom is cursed with disease and corruption ( Shakespeare 1.5.39-40).
Another form of corruption embedded in the plot is Hamlet’s plan for retribution. In fact, the play is rife with violence in the form of self-defence and revenge. Characters take justice into there own hands leading to even greater atrocities. Clearly Shakespeare does not mention or imply of any legal body to settle Danish disputes aside from a brief mention of Hamlet’s execution to the English King. In reality, Claudius was afraid of a revolt by the Danish citizens because of their love for Hamlet. Therefore, he set up his own rendition of justice by manipulating Laertes’ blind rage to Hamlet for the death of his sister Ophelia and his father Polonius. Likewise, Hamlet also estabishes his on version of justice by masterminding a plan to kill Claudius. All these characters either despised the rule of the land or simply acted out because their was no legal body that would ensure justice was served to the people. Such a supposition also explains Ophelia’s death which was out of anguish and hopelessness over the lack of vegence from the governing body. Additionally, the inclusion of God as the ultimate judge as opposed to any human being from the play further substantiates the lack of justice in that corrupt world.
On the other hand, Polonius was not a victim, he in fact, was Hamlet’s enemy indirectly because he functioned as Claudius’s henchman. His character was morally questionable from the start. He also was eavesdropping on the queen’s conversation with her son Hamlet in the queens sleeping chamber. Therefore, his death was not an innocent death but an unforseen victory against the anagonist (Claudia). Of all the characters, Ophelia is the only one who suffers as a victim. The rest participate in the corruption as perpetrators or with morally questionable behavior. The book is field with the ‘an eye for an eye’ concept which turns even well meaning heros into perpetrators. In elucidating this supposition, Jenkins asserts:
We have a hero who in seeking to right a wrong commits one, whose aspirations and achievements are matched by failures and offences, and in whom potentialities for good and evil hauntingly coexist. And this is what transforms the single-mingled revenger into the complex representation of us all. (146).
While Claudius represents the commensement of corruption in Hamlet’s life, Hamlet maintains the theme through his constant opposition to Claudius. All Hamlet feels for Claudius is disdain for his uncle even though they are related by blood he has more regard for a stranger than he could ever feel for his blood relative. When Claudius greets him by refering to him as cousin and son, Hamlet replies “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (Shakespeare 1.2.65). The fued makes Claudius increasingly aware of the threat Hamlet represents and serves as motivation of eliminating him. Sadly, Getrude, blinded by the desire for power does not see the threat Claudius embodies. She would rather believe her son is becoming insane than the wolf in sheep’s clothing she has come to consider her King.
The theme of death is propelled by the prevalence of corruption through out the storyline. Due to lack of justice, everyone sought to find retribution according to their hearts desire and satisfaction. For Hamlet that involved killing Claudius. In the process he ended up killing Polonius as well. The devastation of her father’s death caused Ophelia to commit suicide and Laertes to murder Hamlet to avenge his father’s killing. Getrude died as collateral damage of Claudius’ plan. All this deaths occurred as a result of greed between Claudius and Getrude. Nevertheless, the Kingdom was in the verge of war with an invading army approaching a rather unprepared monarchy. Aside from the killings of the Danish royal members, their was increasing sickness that threatened the lives of the people.
According to Rida, “death in Hamlet is not only the aftermath of the corruption within that society but also a state in which Hamlet prefers things” (19). He seems to have an unusuall appreciation of death and a dislike for life. He paints a rather morbid image of life in Denmark and around the world to show disgust of what his life has turned out to be. Moreover, he ignores Ophelia who is senselessly in love with him throughout his return only to acknowledge his love for her after she has already died. In the end, death seemed to bring another perspective into Hamlet’s disturbed mind.
Hamlet is a representation of corrupt societies and highlights on the effects of living without morals. The absence of societal values and morality is the source of mutiny and disorder. Nothing good can be salvaged from such a foundation because the bad has a way of corrupting the good in society. Furthermore, such a world not only stifles whatever morals are left in the land creating a sense of homelessness and devastation for the poor and the week. In essense what Shakespeare is trying to say is death is the aftermath of corruption in any society.
Bell, Walter G. The Great Plague in London. London : Folio Society, 2001.
Boddenberg, Martin. Corruption in Shakespeare’s” Hamlet”. Hamlet as an evil avenger? London: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Jenkins , Martin. Corruption in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rida , F. “Tragic Hesitation In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Psychoanalytic Perspective.” Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences 3.2 (2010): 19-30.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. London: Nordica Libros, 2012.