When the sentinel Marcellus speaks the line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” after seeing the ghost of the former King Hamlet, he is speaking to a broadly-held societal superstition. In medieval times and the Middle Ages—the era in which Hamlet is set—the majority of people believed that the health of a nation was connected to the legitimacy of its king. As Hamlet endeavors to discover—and root out—the “rotten” core of Denmark, he grows increasingly disgusted and perturbed by literal manifestations of death as well as “deaths” of other kinds: those of honor, decency, and indeed the state of Denmark as he once knew it. Ultimately, Shakespeare suggests a connection between external rot and internal, systemic rot, arguing that physical corruption portends and even predicts the poisoning of spiritual, political, and social affairs.
An atmosphere of poison, corruption, and death lingers over Hamlet from the play’s very first moments. The citizens of Denmark—both within the castle of Elsinore and beyond its walls—know that there is something “rotten” in their state. Marcellus, Barnardo, and Francisco—three watchmen at Elsinore—greet one another as they arrive for their nightly watch with hesitation, suspicion, and even skittishness, and soon the source of their anxiety becomes clear: an apparition of the recently-deceased King Hamlet has appeared on the castle walls several times in the last week. The ghost can hardly portend anything good, and as Hamlet and Horatio decide to investigate the apparition and its purpose, they learn that there is indeed a deep corruption at the heart of Denmark’s throne: Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother, murdered him and took his throne. The political corruption which has overtaken Denmark so disturbs Hamlet that he develops, as the play goes on, an obsession with physical corruption—with rot, decay, and the disgusting nature of death.
Throughout the play, Hamlet’s fixation with rot and corruption—both of the body and of the soul—reflects his (and his society’s) conflation of the spoilage of the outside with the deterioration of the inside. In Act 2, Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he sees the beauty of the world around him as nothing but a “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors,” demonstrating his inability to look past the nasty, foul truths which have recently been exposed to him. Thinking so much about his father’s death has given Hamlet’s thoughts an existential bent, but there is a deeper, darker pessimism that has overtaken his mind, as well—one which manifests as a preoccupation with disease and foulness. When confronting his mother Gertrude about her marriage to Claudius, his father’s murderer, he calls Claudius a “mildewed” man and refers to the “rank sweat” of their “enseamèd [marriage] bed.” Pestilence, rot, mold, and decay are never far from Hamlet’s mind—and this obsession reflects his larger anxieties about the deteriorating health not just of himself or his family, but of their very nation. After killing Polonius, Hamlet hides the man’s body in a place where, he warns Claudius, it will soon become food for the worms and begin to stink up the castle. Hamlet knows that just as bodies putrefy and grow rancid, so too does subterfuge and foul play. His obsession with rotting things shows that he truly believes Claudius’s “foul deeds” will soon reveal themselves—with or without Hamlet’s own help.
When Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, a former court jester, while paying a visit to the graveyard just beyond the walls of Elsinore, he is flung into an existential despair—and one of the play’s most profound moments of reckoning with the finality (and the foulness) of death and decay unfolds. As Hamlet laments that all the parts of Yorick he knew in life—the man’s “infinite jest,” warmth, and geniality, but also his physical attributes, such as his tongue and his flesh—are gone forever, he realizes that all men, be they formidable leaders like Alexander the Great or a lowly fool, return to “dust.” Hamlet is both disturbed and soothed by the specifics of the body’s process of decay, and even asks the gravediggers working in the yard for detailed descriptions of how long, exactly, it takes for flesh to rot off of human bones. Hamlet’s continued fixation on the undignified but inescapable process of dying and decay shows that he feels incapable of stopping whatever is festering at the heart of Denmark—and indeed, in the end, a foreign leader named Fortinbras is the only one left to take over the Danish throne after Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, and Gertrude all perish. Denmark had to rot in order to flourish—just as human flesh decays and fertilizes the ground beneath which it lies.
Shakespeare creates a gloomy, poisonous atmosphere throughout Hamlet in order to argue that there is a profound connection between internal rot and external decay. As the state of Denmark suffers political corruption, Shakespeare invokes another kind of corruption—rotting, fouling, and putrefying—to suggest that a corrupt state is just as odious as a decaying corpse.
Poison, Corruption, Death ThemeTracker
Poison, Corruption, Death Quotes in Hamlet
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in
reason, how infinite in faculties, 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?
To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.
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…
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?
We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.