Where and how many times in the play do poisonings (emotional, physical, and spiritual) take place?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Marcellus observes "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.90), his is a remark pregnant with meaning. For, there is, indeed, a poisoning of the minds, hearts, and political state in the kingdom of Shakespeare's play.

Here are the perpetrators of poisoning:

  • King Claudius

Indubitably, the inciting incident of the play is the physical poisoning and death of King Hamlet. This heinous act has been committed by the play's villain, Claudius, who has now been crowned king and has married King Hamlet's widow Gertrude, thus committing a civil incest, which is a spiritual poisoning. 

Further, in order to protect his murderous usurping of the throne, a spiritual poisioning of his own soul, Claudius engages in various nefarious acts which elicit further poisonings:

  1. He accepts the engagement of the politically ambitious Polonius as a conspirator against Prince Hamlet, thus initiating more political and spiritual poisoning. For, he is complicit with Polonius regarding the spying on Hamlet as well as the innuendos and insinuations of Hamlet's insanity. (Act II, Sc. 2)
  2. He elicits the support of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Act II, Sc. 2), as well as Laertes in his plan to eliminate Hamlet, whom he knows is a threat to his authority. [more poisoning as Claudius continues his illegal reign (political) and turns the hearts of others against Hamlet (spiritual) ] For instance, he speaks with Laertes in Act IV, Scene 7 and convinces Laertes to fight Hamlet with a poisoned sword (second physical poisoning). He also tries to get Hamlet to drink poison during the duel of the final act.
  • Polonius

In his cupidity for political position, Polonius poisons (emotional) the heart of his own daughter and attempts to do the same to Queen Gertrude's heart (emotional poisoning), as well, telling her such things as "Your noble son is mad" (2.2.92). Exploiting Ophelia, he destroys her spirit as he rehearses her in what to say when Hamlet visits her, turning her heart against him in fear (Act III, Sc.1) as Polonius intimates that Hamlet does not love her (II, Sc.1). In effect, Polonius is as responsible as Hamlet for his daughter's suicide.

  • Ophelia 

Ophelia is spiritually poisoned by her father who involves her in his plot against Hamlet. (Act III), and then she is later destroyed emotionally after her encounter with Hamlet who feigns madness and then is cruel to her at the play (Act III, Sc.2). Emotionally and psychologically devastated by this treatment, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself (Act IV, Sc. 7).

  • Hamlet

In his deep melancholy, Hamlet manages to poison himself spiritually, and he poisons Ophelia's heart and soul along the way. In Act III, Hamlet tells her "I did love you once" (114) and orders her to "Get thee to a nunnery"(119).

Certainly, all Hamlet's soliloquies illustrate his spiritual deterioration and the poisoning of his heart against Ophelia and his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. for example, in his third soliloquy, he chides himself,

Why what an ass am I! This is most brave,--
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion!....(2.2.539-544) 

In the final act, he is physically poisoned when the rapier of Laertes touches him