Why is Hamlet's reference to Claudius as "this canker of our nature" in Act 5, Scene 2 appropriate?

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I would argue that it's an entirely appropriate description. Since Claudius murdered his brother and usurped his throne, there's been "something rotten in the state of Denmark." Moral corruption is everywhere; even the air that Hamlet breathes seems to be nothing but "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors." Moreover, Hamlet is disturbed by what he sees as Claudius's corruption of Gertrude. There's no suggestion that Hamlet's mother has the faintest idea of Claudius's involvement in her late husband's murder—or even that he was murdered—but in her son's eyes her soul has nonetheless been corrupted by the indecent haste with which she remarried and the willingness she's displayed in sharing Claudius's bed.

Hamlet has an idealized notion of womanly virtue, and this explains his being so terribly offended by Gertrude's actions. Though Hamlet is fiercely critical of his mother's behavior, there's no doubt that he holds Claudius ultimately responsible for her corruption. He is the "canker" that has corrupted Gertrude's true nature as a loyal, loving wife and mother.

As with everything bad that happens in Denmark, all roads lead back to Claudius. His murder of King Hamlet was the catalyst for all the moral turpitude that has since descended upon the kingdom. So Hamlet's lurid description of him is entirely accurate.

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According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word canker can be defined as "a source of spreading corruption or decay."

To fully understand this description of Claudius, you need to look at in the context of the description and the play as a whole.

Hamlet has just shown Horatio the letter from Claudius calling for his (Hamlet's) execution by England. When Horatio questions what sort of king would do such an act, Hamlet replies with the following:

"Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon-
He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother;
Popped in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage-is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?"

In essence Hamlet is listing a few of Claudius' wrongs--his corruption, if you will. Namely, Claudius has:
1. Killed a king
2. Made a whore of Hamlet's mother
3. Taken Hamlet's crown
4. Attempted to have Hamlet murdered

Hamlet then goes on to tell Horatio that his conscience compels him to "quit him with this arm," meaning kill Claudius with his own hands. He goes on to say that he deserves damnation if he allows Claudius, through his own inaction, to spread his corruption by committing another evil act.


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