In Hamlet, what imagery does Shakespeare use and why?

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In Hamlet Shakespeare frequently uses imagery related to disease to convey the toxic wave of moral corruption that's engulfed Denmark since Claudius murdered his way to the throne. The very air is polluted with corruption, so much so that Hamlet finds it nothing more than "a foul and pestilent congregation...

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In Hamlet Shakespeare frequently uses imagery related to disease to convey the toxic wave of moral corruption that's engulfed Denmark since Claudius murdered his way to the throne. The very air is polluted with corruption, so much so that Hamlet finds it nothing more than "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." Graphic images of ulcers, pustules, pleurisy, and apoplexy abound, giving the unmistakable impression of a country that's dying. In Denmark under Claudius, even virtue itself cannot escape the prevailing contamination unleashed by his perfidy:

Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes: The canker galls the infants of the spring, Too oft before their buttons be disclosed (Act I Scene ii).

It's not just the imagery of physical disease that's used by Shakespeare, but mental illness too:

Make you a wholesome answer; my wit's diseased: but, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command (Act II Scene iii).

In act 3, scene 3 Claudius is at prayer, praying for forgiveness for his brother's murder. Watching from a distance, Hamlet mulls over whether he should take the opportunity to kill his wicked uncle right there and then. He decides against it, reasoning that he might send Claudius to heaven rather than hell, and he's not prepared to take the chance. So Claudius will get to live another day, but his prayer will be but a temporary measure to delay the inevitable; it cannot cure him of the disease of wickedness:

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

In Claudius's counterfeit kingdom, the old values are turned upside down. Even love itself has been corrupted and diseased, as the behavior of Gertrude amply demonstrates. According to Hamlet, his mother has replaced the blossom of true love with a nasty blemish:

Such an act That blurs the grace and blush of modesty, Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose From the fair forehead of an innocent love And sets a blister there, makes marriage vows As false as dicers' oaths (Act III Scene iv).

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Imagery is a type of language that appeals to the audience's five senses. Throughout various scenes in the play Hamlet, Shakespeare utilizes imagery to create an atmosphere, emphasize themes, and build suspense. In Act One, Scene 2, Shakespeare utilizes imagery throughout Hamlet's first soliloquy. Hamlet expresses his displeasure with life by comparing it to an unweeded garden. He says,

"'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. That it should come to this..." (Shakespeare, 1.2.135-138).

The audience visualizes a garden that is in disarray and smells foul, which represents Hamlet's despair.

In Act One, Scene 4, Hamlet is following his father's ghost and comments on his current state of mind. Shakespeare employs imagery to describe Hamlet's excitement to meet with the Ghost by writing,

"My fate cries out and makes each petty artery in this body as hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve" (1.4.86-89).

The audience can feel and sense Hamlet becoming anxious as he follows his father's ghost.

In Act One, Scene 5, Shakespeare again employs imagery to recreate King Hamlet's murder. King Hamlet's ghost gives a vivid visual representation of how Claudius murdered him while he was sleeping in an orchard. The audience visualizes Claudius carrying out the murder and can sense how the poison flowed through King Hamlet's blood. The Ghost tells Hamlet,

"Sleeping within my orchard, my custom always of the afternoon, upon my secure hour thy uncle stole with juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, and in the porches of my ears did pour the leperous distilment, whose effect holds such an enmity with blood of man that swift as quicksilver it courses through the natural gates and alleys of the body and with a sudden vigor 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" (Shakespeare, 1.5.59-74).

While Claudius is attempting to pray, Shakespeare utilizes imagery throughout Claudius' soliloquy, which allows the audience an opportunity to share Claudius' feelings of remorse. Claudius says,

"Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven...I stand in pause where I shall first begin, and both neglect. What if this cursèd hand were thicker than itself with brother’s blood? Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy but to confront the visage of offence? And what’s in prayer but this twofold force, to be forestallèd ere we come to fall or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up. my fault is past" (Shakespeare, 3.3.38-52).

The audience senses the foul odor and visualizes bloody hands which represent Claudius' offense. The audience gains insight into how Claudius views his actions through Shakespeare's use of imagery.

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