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Corruption in Shakespeare's Hamlet


The world’s most famous tragedy Hamlet, by the world’s most popular playwright Shakespeare, is as much a mystery as it is a riddle (Mack 236-237). The complicated language is only exacerbated with Shakespeare’s multifarious use of imagery. The images in Hamlet, however, shed light on the larger themes. Shakespeare uses the images of corruption and decay to show how easily the contagion of corruption can spread.

At the very start, Francisco says, “’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart” (Shakespeare 7). The feeling of anxiety makes the Elsinore guards feel insecure and uneasy. Veritably, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Shakespeare 55). After Marcellus expresses these famous words, there can be no doubt that something is amiss. The immediate effect of his words shows the fear and trepidation created by the wandering ghost. By delving deeper into Marcellus’ remark, it becomes clear that the something is King Claudius. The unsuspecting reader has yet to find out that the King is the source of all the corruption. The reoccurring theme of corruption spreading first becomes apparent when Hamlet says, “The dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt / To his own scandal” (Shakespeare 51). One person’s bad character becomes the contagion, which contaminates the entire kingdom. In exactly the same fashion, the corrupt nature of the king infects his entire kingdom. 

Shakespeare tries to show that the sun, just like King Claudius, can spread corruption. The sun, which is the source of all life on Earth, becomes “a powerful agent of corruption” (Altick 168). Kings are often associated with both the divinity of the heavens and the omnipotence of the sun. Therefore, the sun becomes the King. The importance of the sun can be seen when Claudius asks, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet replies, “Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun” (Shakespeare 25). While many readers see the hidden pun between sun and son, few see the reference to the corrupting nature of the sun. At this point, since both the reader and Hamlet do not know of the corrupt nature of Claudius, it is hard to attribute the previously described rottenness to the King. Later in a soliloquy, Hamlet says, “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (Shakespeare 29). Hamlet feels defiled and stained even though he is innocent of any wrongdoing. The King’s corruption has indirectly reached Hamlet just as it reached Marcellus and Francisco in the very beginning. There is a great deal of ambiguity as to which word actually used: sullied, sallied or solid. Due to Shakespeare’s habit of repeating image clusters, Samuel Weiss argues that “the only truly meaningful and Shakespearian reading [… is] “solid flesh”” (Weiss 227). Interestingly, both solid and sullied are relatively consistent with the rest of Hamlet. If solid is the right word, then the sun would have a greater role, as it would clearly not be melting flesh, but snow. Hamlet soon realizes the importance of the sun as a corrupting force when he tells Polonius “the sun breed maggots in a dead dog” (Shakespeare 95). The sun, the source of all energy and life on Earth, also “gives birth” to insidious life forms. However, Hamlet is not through with Polonius just yet. Hamlet continues by telling Polonius to “let her not walk i’ th’ sun” (Shakespeare 95). Hamlet believes that Polonius’ main concern is to not let Ophelia become pregnant. Therefore, in consistency with contemporary views of impregnation, Hamlet tells Polonius not to let Ophelia go outside, for she might become pregnant by the sun. Surely, the sun is not always a positive force, for it can give birth to both evil and good. Likewise, a King can either be corrupt or virtuous. Claudius is obviously the former.

Corruption is accelerated with the image of decay. Using his empirical knowledge, Hamlet comes to the conclusion that the world “’Tis an unweeded garden / that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely (Shakespeare 29). Shakespeare uses this description in order to promote the idea that the world itself is decaying. The weeds in this decaying world seem to represent evil and sin. The “things” rank and gross in nature represent humanity in general. Humanity is only acting as a catalyst to the ultimate domination of sin and corruption. A similar idea is expressed in Laertes’ advice to Ophelia:

The canker galls the infants of the spring

Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,

And, in the morn and liquid dew of youth,

Contagious blastments are most imminent (Shakespeare 41).

The message Laertes has tries to tell his sister is rather simple in comparison to the complicated language surrounding it. He basically asks Ophelia not to forgo her virginity to Hamlet. The image of the canker is vitally important to the continuing theme of decay. The cankerworm destroys the young buds of flowers, preventing any blossoming. Of course, all flowers eventually wither away and die, but the canker is the contagious blastment, which quickens the process of corruption and decay. In other words, the canker makes the flowers die young and early; before they have even had a chance to truly live. Laertes’ advice to his sister is mirrored by the advice Hamlet gives his mother:

            Lay not that flattering unction to your soul

That not your trespass but my madness speaks.

It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,

Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,

Infects unseen (Shakespeare 179).

The rank corruption is exactly like the cankerworm in Laertes’ advice. Hamlet asks his mother to believe that he is not mad, but rather speaks the truth. Hamlet is attempting to save his mother by not allowing the corruption exuded by Claudius to affect her. Furthermore, Hamlet warns his mother not to “spread the compost on the weeds / To make them ranker” (Shakespeare 181). In this case, the compost acts as the catalyst, quickening the spread of corruption.

            Ultimately, Hamlet becomes infected with poison from Laertes’ foil. Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet are all dead, but who is responsible? Shakespeare’s use of decay and corruption imagery blames Claudius, and thereby exonerates Hamlet. The contagion all spread from one source: King Claudius. It does in fact only take one bad apple to ruin the whole barrel. More importantly, Shakespeare’s use of imagery provides “an extraordinarily vivid lesson in the continuous, contagious quality of sin (Altick 176).




2006 Philosophy Paradise