Death and Corruption in Hamlet

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Harold Blume said it best when he said, "Hamlet is deaths ambassador to us." Throughout Hamlet, we have the images of death, decay, rottenness, and corruption pressed upon us. The imagery corresponds with the plot of the play perfectly, all culminating with the gravedigger scene. The corruption images illuminate the actions of the people in Claudius' court, beginning with Claudius' own actions.

The beginning of the play lets us know that it is winter with Fransisco's statement that it is "bitter cold" (1.1.6) This may be an allusion to death in itself – things are dead in winter. The guards speak of the ghost and we know right away that we have a supernatural theme, as well as a theme of death. In act 1 scene 2 we get the impression that King Hamlet has been gone for a while. Gertrude is already re-married and is happily out of mourning clothes. Gertrude even tells Hamlet, who is in full black mourning clothes, to cheer up.

Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off,

And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.

Do not for ever with thy vailed lids

Seek for thy noble father in the dust:

Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,

Passing through nature to eternity.


Hamlet does not feel that it is time for him to shed his wretchedness just yet. The impression given is that it has been a long time science the death of the old king and only Hamlet still clings to his memories and grief. After everyone leaves, however, we find out all the sordid details about the new King and Hamlet's mother. Hamlet begins the rottenness imagery right away when he compares the world to "an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature posses it merely." (1.2.135-6) He is utterly despondent and blames his mother and uncle for not feeling the way he does. He is the one who points out that the old King, his father, has not been dead long at all – only a month in fact. He rails over the fact that his mother could be so fickle, marrying again so soon. The affront is ground even more sharply into his frail sensibilities when she marries his father's brother, his uncle. The fact that the two of them could be so jolly so soon after the death of his father just staggers him. He predicts that such haste "cannot come to good. But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue." (1.2.158-9)

Hamlet is further thrown into gloom when he is told that his father's ghost has been spotted. He suspects that the only reason that his father would appear would be to warn him of a foul deed.

My father's spirit in arms! All is not well;

I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come.

Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,

Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes.


Marcellus reinforces the idea with his comment that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." (1.4.67) This alludes to a plot or some such, that has been perpetrated against King Hamlet. Hamlet and the guards realize now that there must be some terrible deed that has kept the King from rest, something that needs to be revenged. Hamlet finds out just what happened to his father in the next scene. The King's ghost keeps the rotten imagery going with his remarks about garbage, leprous distilment, and curdy milk.

The death imagery continues in act 3 scene 1 with Hamlet's famous soliloquy.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?


He debates whether or not it would be easier to just die than to fight against all his troubles. Is it really worth the grief he is going through, or would it be easier to just take his life. He sees how his mother and Claudius are conducting themselves and he is disheartened by Ophelia's supposed rejection of him. He does not want to live in...
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