Corruption, rot, disease, and poison are among the chief sources of poetic imagery in Hamlet. The poison with which Claudius kills King Hamlet spreads in a sense through the entire country till "something is rotten in Denmark." Trace this imagery throughout the play. Is the arrival of Fortinbras at the end meant to be the cure? If so, what sort of cure will it be?

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William Shakespeare ties together the ideas of corruption, rot, disease, and poison in both abstract and concrete terms. Hamlet ’s comparison of the world to a garden taken over by weeds, “things rank and gross in nature” (act 1, scene 2) is expanded by Marcellus’s perception that “something is rotten”...

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William Shakespeare ties together the ideas of corruption, rot, disease, and poison in both abstract and concrete terms. Hamlet’s comparison of the world to a garden taken over by weeds, “things rank and gross in nature” (act 1, scene 2) is expanded by Marcellus’s perception that “something is rotten” (act 1, scene 4), which is indicated in part by the dead king’s emergence from his grave. Further evidence soon suggests that the entire country of Denmark is decaying. The ghost of the older Hamlet reveals to his son that Claudius used poison to take his life and thus usurp the throne, establishing the link between poison and corruption. Corruption is represented by Claudius.

Another image of corruption is Hamlet’s juxtaposition of the emergence of maggots in carrion to the conception of a human child (act 2, scene 2). In speaking with Polonius, Hamlet mentions the sun’s function to “breed maggots in a dead dog,” and in the next line, comments that Ophelia’s “conception” would not be a blessing. Given his subsequent conversation with Ophelia, he is likely implying that for her to become pregnant with his child would be a disaster given Denmark’s dismal state. This metaphor also foreshadows Hamlet’s comments on human mortality in reference to Polonius’s body after he kills him (act 4, scene 3):

We fat all creatures
else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.

When Claudius finds he cannot pray because he fears heaven’s censure, he acknowledges that his actions were corrupt, as if placed in his position by a gold-coated hand (act 3, scene 3):

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice….

Hamlet refers to corruption in ranting at his mother about her sexual relationship with Claudius. He says that their bed seems sweet, like honey, but is as “rank” as if it were positioned over a pigsty.

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!

Poison becomes a dominant motif as the plot advances. The play within a play crystallizes the theme of corruption and the imagery of poison, made concrete in the dumbshow performance, when a “fellow… pours poison in the King's ears.”

In the end, the poison that Claudius prepares ends up killing the wrong people, and thus turns the tables on the murderer. While Claudius’s death moves Denmark toward normalcy as Hamlet’s goal of revenge is achieved, the corruption is also affirmed by the loss of so many innocent lives.

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It seems, on the surface, that Fortinbras with his decisive and princely personality is meant to be the invigorating cure to Denmark's disease. Nevertheless, the ending, while bringing a sense of closure, also leaves questionable the nature of the cure.
As Hamlet recognizes, Fortinbras has determination and warriorlike qualities that Hamlet himself lacks. In his soliloquy in act 4, scene 4, Hamlet tries to shame himself into finally taking action and killing Claudius by comparing himself to Fortinbras. While, he, Hamlet, is conflicted over whether to go ahead with the vengeance he knows is Claudius's due, Fortinbras has assembled a whole army to march to Denmark and take back a strip of land Hamlet's father once took from Fortinbras's father. Hamlet reasons to himself that he should avenge his father's death if Fortinbras can go to such lengths.
Hamlet's soliloquy displays his undercurrents of doubt about whether Fortinbras's resolute militarism is the right course. Is it worth it, Hamlet wonders, to risk so many lives for something he compares to an "eggshell:"
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell.
Terms such as "ambition puffed" are more negative than positive. Is Fortinbras risking an army for personal vanity and egoism, putting many people in the way of "death and danger" for an "eggshell"—something fragile and worthless?
Although he is trying to "shame" himself into action, Hamlet continues to describe Fortinbras's enterprise in negative terms, saying:
... I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot ...
Hamlet's rhetoric suggests that Fortinbras's militarism is not worth it. Hamlet says Fortinbras is fighting for "fantasy" and "fame" and notes he is sending thousands of men to their graves to grab a tiny piece of land.
Nevertheless, at the end of the play, as he is dying, Hamlet names Fortinbras his heir. We may wonder if this is wise. Fortinbras does say he accepts his "fortune"—the kingdom of Denmark with "sorrow," but quickly goes on the assert his rights to claim it:
For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune.
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.
The militaristic man also shows a misunderstanding of Hamlet's nature. Fortinbras wants him buried with military honors, as a soldier, but Hamlet did not have a soldier's sensibility. Fortinbras says:
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally. And, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
The play opened with the ominous sounds of war: Claudius had the shipbuilders working overtime to prepare for Fortinbras's attack. These were not happy sounds. They were one of the many ill omens that beset the play's opening. Now Fortinbras will be king, and his military lust may not bode well for Denmark. Violence has not served Denmark well thus far; there is little indication that it will do so in the future. We might fear that the cure will be as bad as the disease.
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