In Hamlet, how is Denmark in trouble?

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Hamlet faces the prospect that he might soon rule a country that is threatened from within and without. After the death of his father, King Hamlet, his mother, Gertrude, married his father’s brother, Claudius . In this way, Claudius has become king, and Hamlet is convinced that he...

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Hamlet faces the prospect that he might soon rule a country that is threatened from within and without. After the death of his father, King Hamlet, his mother, Gertrude, married his father’s brother, Claudius. In this way, Claudius has become king, and Hamlet is convinced that he murdered his own brother to gain the throne. If he was willing to do that, would he hesitate to kill young Hamlet? Furthermore, Hamlet must wonder if his mother was involved in the murder. If so, perhaps Claudius would kill her to safeguard that information. And of course, his own life is probably in danger as well.

Meanwhile, Denmark has been involved in a war with Norway. During a major battle, old King Hamlet killed Norway’s King Fortinbras. Norway now has a rulership situation similar to Denmark: the former king’s brother has assumed the throne, and Fortinbras’s son, also named Fortinbras, is anxious to avenge his father’s death by attacking Denmark. The Norwegian king thinks that young Fortinbras is mustering the troops to attack Poland, but he actually plans to invade Denmark. Through his extensive spy network, Claudius learns of the upcoming invasion and manages to get Norway’s king to change the target of the invasion. News of Fortinbras's decisive action gives Hamlet strength to resume his investigation of Claudius; even though Claudius temporarily forestalled the invasion, in doing so he hastened his own demise.

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Hamlet opens with an atmosphere of of gloom and foreboding. Not only has King Hamlet, Hamlet's father, died recently, the guards on duty at the castle are discussing  disquieting events with Horatio. The guards have seen the ghost of the dead King Hamlet, a disturbing enough situation, but beyond that, Marcellus notes that cannons are being made and shipwrights are building ships in "sweaty haste." Horatio informs Marcellus and the other guards that the rumor is that young Fortinbras, "of unimproved mettle, hot and full," is preparing to march on Denmark to regain the lands his father, who was slain in battle, lost to King Hamlet. Therefore, Denmark is readying itself for war.

If being faced with an invading army were not enough, the Danish court itself is corrupt. People serve their own interests rather than the larger good of the country. Claudius, for example, has murdered his brother so he can become king, and courtiers like Polonius are more concerned with getting ahead in their careers than behaving with integrity. As Marcellus says, meaning more than he knows, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. 

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