Hamlet and the Theme of Corruption
The tragedy “Hamlet” revolves around the murderous and violent actions of Claudius and his succession to the throne by slaying his brother and marrying the widowed Queen Gertrude. From these actions, the still grieving Prince Hamlet reveals a pool of corruption and deceit into which he and all those around him fall. One of the main themes of this play is the corrupting power of evil. Shakespeare uses several elements such as rot and decay, deceit and lies, poison and madness to explore the theme of corruption and in doing so proposes that those closest to the source are the first to be corrupted.
After the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father returns to make him swear vengeance on his brother, everything in the tragedy takes a turn for the worst as the corruption begins. Claudius’ action of kin slaying eventually leads to the death of all of the play’s main characters with the exception of Horatio. With Hamlet being so close to this corruption, sprouting from his uncle’s murderous actions, he quickly turns callous and cruel. Shakespeare shows this in the play in Act 1 Scene 2 where Hamlet says “Tis an unwedded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature”(line 135-6).
The imagery in this quote highlights how from a foul doing, the killing of the King, more and even worse actions follow. The imagery of rot and decay is one of the earliest elements presented to the reader encompassed in the theme of the corrupting power of evil. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Act 1 Scene 3 line 90) insinuates that decay is already present in the land before Hamlet speaks to the ghost. This image of rottenness is frequently repeated with the idea of incest between his uncle and mother, who married after his father was murdered.
This, as well as many other instances, directly shows what is “rotten in the state of Denmark”. The Ghost of Hamlet makes reference to the place he died as his orchid, “tis given out that, sleeping in my orchid” (Act 1 scene 5 line 35). This recurring idea of rotting vegetation symbolizes the corrupt state of Denmark. The use of poison throughout the play conjures strong imagery of decay; poison being the weapon used to kill the Old King, Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet, arguably the four most important characters in the play. We learn of the use of poison in old King Hamlet’s death when his ghost recites A serpent stung me – So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused …now wears his crown” (Act 1 Scene 5 line 36-37). This imagery of a serpent further represents the image of poison throughout the play. Serpents are a well-known metaphor for betrayal, evil and deceit since their appearance in the earliest biblical stories of Eden. The theme that those closest to the source of corruption fall to its influence first and furthest is shown by Shakespeare in the quote “For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion”(Act 2 Scene 2 Line 181-182).
In this quote Shakespeare is saying three things at once. “If the sun breed maggots” is used to describe Claudius and that from the king corruption flows. The king was considered a radial image, much like the sun, thus creating the symbolic link. He is also using the phonetic form of the word sun to refer to Hamlet, from whom the corruption is further spreading. Hamlet in this quote is also warning Polonius to keep his daughter away from the “Sun”, indicating both Claudius and Hamlet, in order to keep her safe.
Finally, Shakespeare reminds us that corruption once present is easily spread as maggots “kissing carrion” preying upon the carcass of a dead dog. This idea of corruption spreading from the source is further explored by the motif of deceit and lies throughout the play. These things are quintessential to corruption and slowly invade the good minds of Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes. The motif of spying reinforces these ideas of deceit and mistrust. Hamlet fools the whole court with his act of being insane which leads to himself fooling his own mind and the corruption of Ophelia’s mind as well.
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This element of madness is another example of how the ones closest to the source are the first to be corrupted. Hamlet himself is overwhelmed by the corruption and from him sprouts more chaos. We learn that Ophelia is Hamlet’s lover, still after she is forbidden, “Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love. ” (Act 2 Scene 2 line 117-8). Ophelia’s mind is turned into a worse state then Hamlet’s and is one of the first characters to be ruined by him. This madness slowly takes over her and she resolves to drown herself much to Hamlet’s dismay.
The theme of corruption is one of the more significant themes within the play. The initial corruption spread from Claudius is the main catalyst for change in “Hamlet”. Without this corruption it is entirely possible that none of the catastrophic events in the play would have unfolded. The elements of rot and decay, deceit and lies, poison and madness are strong throughout the play. These reinforce the theme of corruption and how it spreads from the source and quickly envelops all those around it.