How does Shakespeare use sickness, rot and contagion in Hamlet?

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Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sickness and rottenness are prevelant in Shakespeare's Hamlet.  They are used to contribute imagery and theme.  A few references follow.

King Hamlet's ghost describes how the poison rotted his body:

And with a sudden vigor it 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.  (I.5)

After Hamlet sees the king's reaction to the play and knows the ghost is really the ghost of his father and is telling him the truth about the murder, he is momentarily sure of himself and says in a speech:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,

When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out

Contagion to this world.  Now could I drink hot blood,

And so such better business as the day

Would quake to look on. (III.3)

Then, of course, is the famous imagery used by Hamlet when he's questioned concerning the whereabouts of the now dead Polonius (killed by Hamlet).  Polonius is:

Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten.  A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him.  Your worm is your only emperor for diet.  We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.  Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service--two dishes, but to one table.  (IV:3)

These are just a few of the numerous examples of sickness and rottenness in the play.  No study would be complete, for instance, without looking at the gravedigger scene featuring the skull of Hamlet's childhood friend/jester.


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