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Corruption and Disease

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Corruption and Disease

  • As the play opens much is wrong in the state of Denmark. The wrongness in the state is represented throughout the play in a variety of ways. One of the most obvious thematic displays of rottenness comes in the contrast between appearances and actual intentions, imagery indicating disease and corruption lurking beneath the surface.
  • A ‘disease’ has taken hold of the nation as a result of Claudius' great crime, spreading down to the very core of the state, represented by its ruler.
  • Corruption becomes the disease that purges Denmark of these persons, a direct resultant of their corrupted actions being their deaths (Morality element to the play)
  • The catalyst of the events that we witness in the play itself is the revelation of the act by King Hamlet's ghost to Hamlet. The implication is that King Hamlet was a strong ruler, one who held his nation intact, having a loving relationship with Gertrude. Denmark was healthy under his rule and isn’t under Claudius’
  • The ‘disease’ that has facilitated the murder of King Hamlet and the incestuous marriage of Gertrude to Claudius doesn’t limit itself to Claudius and his direct actions. The cause and effect relationship of the disease spreads quickly throughout the characters

Corruption and Disease

  • It could be suggested that Hamlet himself is corrupted by his very purpose. In Hamlet, a decent caring man is presented, dark and brooding over his father's death. The confluence of events creates a situation in which King Hamlet's ghost forces Hamlet into a situation that he is unable to make a decision in. And thus he delays, stewing in his indecision, letting the corruption of the ghost with his vengeful call to action, take over.
  • Nine characters in total die, wiping the slate clean of the corruption that stole Denmark. The importance of this lays not in the characters' death, but the manner in which Hamlet retains his stole of the virtuous prince. Though tarnished by the death he has caused, it somehow remains, especially in his 'soldier's burial', that he is a respected man who died honourably and who's legacy, assigning Fortinbras the throne, will live on.
  • A stagnant disease, with no cure, that inevitably leads to death: corruption. Each of the characters in Hamlet infected, led astray of their sense of morality and loyalty and ultimately finding death as their penance. The seed of the disease sprouted in the biblical misdeed of Claudius, murdering his brother. It spread in his incestuous union to Hamlet's mother Gertrude, and infected even the noble Hamlet upon taking up the cause of his father's ghost and the necessary vengeance. The survival and success of both Horatio and Fortinbras, both free of this disease, help to highlight how the infection of the disease known as corruption is incurable and must end in death.

In Hamlet’s soliloquy he alludes to the fact that Denmark has been ‘diseased’ by Claudius and his incestuous marriage to Gertrude.

  • A well tended garden was an image of the world as it should be – ordered, productive and wholesome. Here Hamlet is suggesting Denmark is anything but. ‘Merely’ = entirely.
  • ‘rank’ in this context means growing excessively – motif of Claudius’ corruption growing and taking over.
  • ‘'tis an unweeded garden,That grows to seed; things rank and gross in naturePossess it merely.’
  • (1.2)

Marcellus’ statement sums up the theme of corruption in this play. Claudius is ‘rotten’ and this is spreading through Denmark corrupting it and its people.

  • Marcellus wants to follow Hamlet to protect him from the ghost, but Horatio resists. His statement could imply his feelings to Hamlet’s involvement in Claudius’ death acting as a precursor for what happens.
  • Denmark/Claudius should be left in the hands of God. He will decide. Hamlet should not intervene changing the natural order of things.


'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'


‘Heaven will direct it’



King Hamlet’s body is literally corrupted by the poison. It takes him over.

  • His body was quite literally destroyed in the act of murder, a powerful image, one that shadows the parallel effects of Claudius' actions on the state of Denmark itself.
  • With King Hamlet dead, the decay of the morality of the state begins as well. It spreads from Claudius outwards.

GHOSTUpon my secure hour thy uncle stole With juice of cursed hebona in a vial, And in the porches of my ears did pour The leperous distilment . . . . . . doth posset And curd, like eager droppings into milk, the thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine. And a most instant tetter barked about, Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust All my smooth body



Denmark as a state is being corrupted by the lies told about King Hamlet’s death

  • By hearing and accepting Claudius’ ‘story’ Denmark is being ‘rankly abused’/grossly deceived.
  • Link to the idea that in killing Claudius he is not only avenging his father’s death, but also ridding Denmark of the poison that corrupts it. This changes the moral questions surrounding Hamlet’s act. Removing Claudius is for the greater good of the nation.

GHOSTSo the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused.



A metaphorical first sin is committed, that which will cast Denmark out of its Eden-like state. Link to Marcellus' remark that "something is rotten in Denmark" (1:4)

  • Claudius alludes to the fact that the disgusting nature of his crime is so powerful that heaven will ‘sniff him out’ and discover the truth.
  • Links to Cain and Abel.
  • Struggles to pray because he is so morally corrupt


O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven.

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t –

A brother’s murder. Pray can I not.




  • Nay, but to liveIn the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
  • Over the nasty sty—
  • (3.4)
  • Hamlet exclaims his fury at Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius
  • She is living in a disgusting greasy bed, steeped in corruption and whispering sweet language to Claudius. Sty can be read as a brothel
  • In accepting Claudius, Gertrude is accepting (and part of) the corrupt disease destroying the nation and that disgusts Hamlet as much as the act of marriage between Gertrude and Claudius.

HAMLETIt will but skin and film the ulcerous place,Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;And do not spread the compost on the weeds,To make them ranker.

  • (3.4)
  • Suggestion that the corruption/disease will cover over/take over Denmark
  • The corruption within (Claudius) is unseen and there dangerous
  • Hamlet begs his mother to confess her part and repent unwise she is as responsible – feeding the corruption and allowing it to grow and become more powerful and spread wider.

LAERTESBut let him come; 
It warms the very sickness in my heart, 
That I shall live and tell him to his teeth, 
"Thus didst thou."

  • (4.7)
  • Laertes is corrupted by his grief and desire for revenge.
  • LINK to the changes in Hamlet as a result of the same emotions.
  • NOTE Claudius’ role in Laertes’ desire for revenge. He corrupts and entices it further. He is the epicentre from which all disease/corruption spread.

LAERTESThe King, the King’s to blame

  • (5.2)
  • Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
  • Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
  • Nor thine one me!
  • (5:2)
  • Laertes blames Claudius for the final events in the play, which mirrors his responsibility for the ‘death’/corruption of Denmark as a whole
  • Laertes and Hamlet forgive and are redeemed at the end of the play
  • Hamlet has not only (eventually) fulfils the ghosts’ wish he also rids Denmark of corruption by ‘defeating’ and killing Claudius.
  • Similarly he voices his support for Fortinbras who is good and pure. Morality and order are restored.