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Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
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Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hamlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon

In medieval times people believed that the health of a nation was connected to the legitimacy of its king. In Hamlet, Denmark is often described as poisoned, diseased, or corrupt under Claudius's leadership. As visible in the nervous soldiers on the ramparts in the first scene and the commoners outside the castle who Claudius fears might rise up in rebellion, even those who don't know that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet sense the corruption of Denmark and are disturbed. It is as if the poison Claudius poured into Old Hamlet's ear has spread through Denmark itself.

Hamlet also speaks in terms of rot and corruption, describing the world as an "unweeded garden" and constantly referring to decomposing bodies. But Hamlet does not limit himself to Denmark; he talks about all of life in these disgusting images. In fact, Hamlet only seems comfortable with things that are dead: he reveres his father, claims to love Ophelia once she's dead, and handles Yorick's skull with tender care. No, what disgusts him is life: his mother's sexuality, women wearing makeup to hide their age, worms feeding on a corpse, people lying to get their way. By the end of the play, Hamlet argues that death is the one true reality, and he seems to view all of life as "appearance" doing everything it can—from seeking power, to lying, to committing murder, to engaging in passionate and illegitimate sex—to hide from that reality.

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Poison, Corruption, Death Quotes in Hamlet

Below you will find the important quotes in Hamlet related to the theme of Poison, Corruption, Death.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.33-34
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet is left alone at this point and enters into his first soliloquy. He discourses on the spite he feels for the other characters and ponders the merits of suicide.

Though the question of suicide is most famously explored in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, it appears already at this early moment in the play. Shakespeare, then, does not present Hamlet’s depressive rumination as so much the result of specific plot elements, but rather as an inherent component of his personality. In this case, the language remains more metaphorical and less assertive than it will be later.

What Hamlet desires is not to actively destroy his flesh but rather to let it passively become liquid through some process: It does not matter to him how this is done—melting, thawing, or inexplicable transformation—are all acceptable routes. He simply bids the natural world to allow this to occur in some way. (Associating suicide with water imagery also foreshadows Ophelia’s drowning later in the play.) The use of the interjection “O,” the conditional construction with “would,” and the repetition of “too too” all give the line a mournful and apathetic tone. Thus the passage positions the limits of human life as an important thematic conceit, while giving us a starting point of relative passivity toward the idea—which will come to contrast with Hamlet’s more assertive musings.


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Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Related Characters: Marcellus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.4.100
Explanation and Analysis:

Marcellus says this line after watching Hamlet run after the Ghost of his father. He observes, darkly, the negative state of both Hamlet’s mind and the corresponding political situation of Denmark.

Though the line is said in response to Hamlet’s emotional outburst and irrational behavior, it does not place blame on him directly. Rather, it presents his action to be the result of an environmental factor: it is the general “state of Denmark” that holds the “rotten” quality. Yet at the same time Mercellus leaves the source entirely ambiguous with the subject “Something.” That something could be a person like Claudius, or perhaps Hamlet’s madness, or perhaps the Ghost itself, who is driving Hamlet to ruinous action.

Thus Shakespeare’s work leaves undisclosed the precise source of the tragedy: if a more conventional tale would give us specific heroes and villains who are deemed either good or "rotten," the triumph of Hamlet is to leave uncertain who exactly is “rotten.” The line also notably brings a political element to bear on the actions, drawing attention to how Hamlet and his father both have a direct effect on the “state.” Though this is a less-often analyzed strain of the play, it is important to recall the geopolitical developments that form the backdrop of the text. Here, we see foreshadowed the decay of Denmark and the way it will be vulnerable to foreign encroachment.

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
O, villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius
Page Number: 1.5.113
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet converses with the Ghost, he curses both Gertrude and Claudius. Here, he exclaims on how Claudius is deceptive and presents an aura of goodwill despite his evil intent.

It’s worthwhile to track some of Hamlet’s repeated speech formations: once more he uses the interjection “O” to stress the emotional intensity of the phrase, and his triple invocation of “villain” is also characteristic of how he will often repeat words many times to build emphasis. Here, “villain” is first said twice to doubly-inscribe the role to Claudius, after which it is qualified with the mixed descriptor “smiling, damned.” Thus the reader only sees the specific qualities of Claudius behavior after we have been told repeatedly that they are evil.

Those specific qualities return us to the question of how one separates interior identity from exterior presentation. Though Claudius is externally “smiling” and thus presenting a positive, friendly image, he is internally still a “villain.” The term “damned” also adds important information: Claudius is ethically accountable for his actions and fated to a negative fate as a result of them. This term implies, then, that Hamlet believes in a system of moral justice, be it religious or secular, and furthermore stresses that this justice will be imposed based on interior identities, not on the external performance of how one comforts with smiles.

Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.327-332
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to soliloquize to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about human nature. He first lauds mankind’s many incredible characteristics in accomplishments before tempering his praise by pointing out human mortality.

At first, Hamlet seems to have strikingly changed his tone from his previous condemnations of human nature. Man’s reason is “noble” or honorable and just, while the “infinite” nature of his “faculty” means it can extend beyond mundane occurrences. He then appreciates the external appearance and behaviors of humanity, likening them first to an “angel” and then “a god.” Indeed, at the time humans are considered the most beautiful thing in the world and deemed the “paragon” or best of all animals. The turn comes when Hamlet says that despite all these remarkable characteristics, humans are just “this quintessence of dust”: Their essential quality is neither noble nor beautiful, but just basic material of the earth.

Yet even before the chilling last line, the phrases glimmer with a negative bent. Hamlet shouts with a seemingly ecstatic air, but the obsessive repetition of exclamation marks grows hollow by the eighth repetition—putting the emphasis more on the phrase’s desperation than any sense of real excitement. Likening men to angels or a god may just seem laudatory, but it is also implausible, and so it comes off as parodic or shrill. Hamlet thus pokes fun at the way that humanity has built up a conceited vision of itself, and points out that they are all fundamentally dust: they have come from nothing and, being mortal, will eventually return to that state.

Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Ophelia
Page Number: 3.1.131-134
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ophelia tries to return a set of gifts Hamlet has given her, he renounces their relationship. He first disparages Ophelia for her lack of honesty, and then implicates himself as the cause of moral wrongdoing.

This passage is another striking example of how Hamlet’s apparent insanity covers up complex reflections on human nature and society. His general claim is that Ophelia should not continue to propagate the species, for all men are sinners even if they are generally honest and well-intentioned. Yet instead of expressing this statement directly, Hamlet couches it in the lunatic demand that Ophelia enter a “nunnery”: a place where should would be celibate and therefore unable to “be a breeder of sinners,” or give birth to more children.

Though this passage might be interpreted in passing as chastising Ophelia for her sins, Hamlet’s claim is actually based on his own transgressions. He notes, in a somewhat roundabout manner, that others could consider his actions reprehensible despite his “indifferent honest” behavior: “indifferent” in that he remains relatively passive, and “honest” in that any sins are supposedly driven by a strong moral compass. Yet, Hamlet reasons, if even his disposition makes him worthy of accusation, then presumably other similar men are sinners, and Ophelia should not risk giving birth to one of them. Shakespeare, here, shows how Hamlet’s nihilistic images of the world are a fascinating mixture of compelling and irrational. The logic makes sense and carries deep philosophical weight, while being simultaneously insensitive and outrageous. The two, Shakespeare shows us, can quite easily coexist.

Act 4, scene 3 Quotes
Claudius: What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius (speaker)
Page Number: 4.3.33-35
Explanation and Analysis:

When Claudius asks Hamlet where he has put Polonius’s body, Hamlet offers an expectedly indirect response that Polonius is food for worms. He adds, here, that this is the eventual fate of all men.

Hamlet’s comment functions simultaneously as an evasive maneuver, an indirect threat, and an existential comment on humanity. First, it allows him to avoid giving a specific location for the body—stressing that it does not matter where Polonius is located, for his fate in all places is the same. Second, he implies through the reference to “a king” that Claudius may soon meet a similar fate as Polonius. And third, Hamlet points out how humans of all social statuses find equal ground in their death. Since the worms now feasting on Polonius are transforming his flesh into soil, his body may soon be feeding someone of lowly status like “a beggar.”

This point returns to Hamlet’s earlier anxieties about how humans, despite their nobility and pretenses, are never anything more than “dust.” Here, he takes this same comment and makes it a weapon against the pomp of a kingly figure like Claudius. Once more Shakespeare has housed this compelling reflection on human mortality in a multi-layered comment that encapsulates Hamlet’s madness, manipulation, and jesting nature in a single line.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest.... Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Horatio, Yorick
Related Symbols: Yorick's Skull
Page Number: 5.1.190-198
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet speaks to the gravediggers, he comes across a skull and learns it is from the court jester Yorick. This shock causes Hamlet to wonder about the distance between Yorick’s behavior in life and his current decaying state.

This passage mixes Hamlet’s characteristic philosophical rumination with an intense dark humor. He offers a series of apostrophe-questions addressed to Yorick, which point out how the dead man will remain ever unable to respond. And the jocular disposition of Yorick reiterates the lack of humor in the current situation. Thus Hamlet is able to take a positive set of terms—“jest,” “gibes,” “gambols,” “songs,” and “merriment”—and turn them all into bleak descriptions of what has been lost. The lines recall his earlier description of how man’s nobility only served to cover an essence of dust. Yet here it is not only great deeds that fade into non-existence, but even small moments of laughter. Shakespeare thus channels the grave scene to point out how the most impressive accomplishments—be they the creation of kingdoms or of “infinite jest”—ultimately end in an empty and absent skull.