How does greed play a role in Hamlet?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The avidity for position in the court of Denmark motivates nearly every major character in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Perhaps this is what prompts Marcellus to utter those famous words, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.90).

  • Claudius

Certainly, the regicide of King Hamlet is motivated by Claudius's desire for power and position. Then, too, he obviously has lusted after Queen Gertrude, for he marries his brother's wife after killing him. Worried that the king's son may seek to disrupt his reign as king, Claudius plots to rid Denmark of Prince Hamlet by manipulating his former schoolmates, the courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do away with him. When this effort fails, Claudius then convinces Laertes to kill Hamlet in a duel so that he may continue his reign as king. However, his cupidity and evil designs turn upon himself and Claudius dies at the hands of Hamlet.

  • Polonius

Long-winded and self-serving, Polonius seeks greater power in the Danish court by feigning loyalty and concern for the royal family. After his daughter Ophelia reports Hamlet's strange behavior toward her, Polonius reports to Queen Gertrude "Your noble son is mad"(2.2.92). In his sycophantic way, he hides behind an arras in order to spy for Claudius while Hamlet speaks to his mother. In this position, however, he effects his own death because he cries out after Gertrude screams believing that Hamlet has attacked her. Like Claudius, his evil intent to sabotage Hamlet backfires and he is stabbed by Hamlet through the curtain, perhaps because Hamlet believes it is Claudius behind the arras.

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Former classmates of Hamlet, the two courtiers agree to provide covert intelligence to King Claudius. Opportunists who wish to gain favor in the royal court, they sacrifice their friendship with Hamlet for positions in the Danish court. However, Hamlet suspects their motives when they talk with him, and he uncovers Claudius's plot to bring about his demise in which they are involved. After a pirate ship intercepts the Danish ship bound for England with the prince and the two courtiers, it carries to King Claudius and Horatio letters paying ransom back for Hamlet.

  • Gertrude

The queen's desire to hold her title and position in court is such that she is willing to marry her dead husband's brother. Certainly, she contributes to the "rottenness" of the Danish court with her avidity to preserve her position.

mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most obvious way that greed comes into play is through Claudius, who, for greed of the kingdom and Gertrude, kills Hamlet's father, the king.  Even after the murder, when he suspects that Hamlet knows, the king cannot ask forgiveness "since I am still possess'd/Of those effects for which I did the murder,/My crown, mine own ambition and my queen." (III.iv.53-55).  He realizes that his greed and ambition have won him the crown and queen, and is struggling to feel sorry for it.

This greed is a catalyst to all of the events in the play.  Another example of greed is possibly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; they so desired and were greedy to gain favor in the new king's eyes that they were willing to plot Hamlet's demise.  This leads Hamlet-finally-to action, killing them and bringing about the tragic events that conclude the play.