Marcellus’ quote, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I, iv, 100), is the overall theme to Act I, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but can also relate to the whole play. When he said it, it was only to mean that something suspicious was occurring and things didn’t seem right. However, it encompasses a lot more than Marcellus planned it to. During this time setting, different events were happening which caused major corruption within the country. Even though Denmark from the outside world appeared as a well functioning nation, inside, people were beginning to suffer from the disease of corruption. “The cause and effect relationship begins to quickly spread the disease throughout the characters” (unknown author). In Hamlet, we see that as the play progresses, three main characters become rotten with corruption; Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet. Claudius and Hamlet try to hide it at first, but it soon becomes too much and they eventually can‘t hold it in any longer. Polonius on the other hand, is open about his motives from the beginning and doesn’t see anything wrong with what he is doing.
All throughout Act I we see different relations to the quote, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” To start off, they have an immoral King running the country. Not only did he kill his own brother for the crown, but then married his brother’s wife to gain power and the position of King. When Horatio states, “In what particular thought to work I know not, but in the gross and scope of my opinion, this bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I, i, 79-81), he is warning the audience that there is disorder in society, and it foreshadows that bad events have occurred and are to come.
Another example of rotten conditions in Act I is the presumption from other nations that Denmark is filled with low life drunks that cause ruckus all the time. Hamlet says, “This heavy headed revel east and west makes us traduced and taxed of other nations- They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase soil our addition; and indeed it takes from our achievements, thought performed at height, the pith and marrow of our attribution” (I, iv, 20-25). Hamlet is disappointed by the nation’s custom to celebrate everything by drinking. It lower’s their reputation as a country, as well as diminishes their achievements observed by others. He thinks people see past Denmark’s good deeds to society and just account them for the ugly attributes of sin.
Prior to the appearance of the Ghost, everyone believed that the Late King died of a snake bite. For some reason it never sat right with Hamlet, and he was definitely questionable about his uncle’s motives on marrying his mother so quickly after the funeral. However, he couldn’t prove Claudius had any part in the murder. Subsequent to talking with the Ghost of the Late King, Hamlet learns that Claudius, the King of Denmark, killed his father. The Ghost states, “’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark is by a forged process of my death rankly abused; but know, thou noble youth, the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” (I, v, 40-45). That quote marked a pivotal moment in the play, as well as defined the major sense of rottenness. It indeed proved Claudius to be a lying deceitful man, who is just power hungry. He went so far, to poison his own brother so he could gain the crown. About three months after the funeral, Claudius, married his own brother’s wife Gertrude and inherited the throne to become King of Denmark. After discovering the truths of his father’s murder, Hamlet made it imperative in his mind to kill Claudius. However, before plotting any permanent plans, he first wrote a play called, “The Mouse Trap” which perfectly depicted the murder of his father. He gathered everyone to watch it and put Horatio in charge of watching the King’s reaction to the murder scene. As the man died in the play, the King stood up screaming and ordered the lights to be turned on. Horatio and Hamlet then concurred that he was indeed guilty, and it was time to plot revenge.
As for critics, many people do agree that Denmark wasn’t going down such a good path. “Rotting from Within: The Disease of Corruption in Shakespeare's Hamlet” is an excellent article that discusses what exactly was rotten in Denmark and where the problems originated from. The unknown author says, “The play unfolds from a single act, King Hamlet's murder. However the tragedy of the play's conclusion involves much more,” which shows he also believes that the whole tragedy of the play unfolds from the murder of King Hamlet. There are many other effects that eventually deteriorate the nation, however that was the first and major cause.
Jared Collins, author of “An Introspective Look at Corruption from Hamlet”, believes most of the corruption in Denmark is based on the issue of power. “The first link in this chain of corruption hinges on power. He [Claudius] has no qualms about killing for his crown”(Collins). Claudius’ hunger for power is the source of his corrupted behavior. He goes so far to slaughter his own brother, and then marry his own brother’s wife to gain the crown. Even though Claudius claims to love Gertrude so much by saying, “She’s so conjunctive to my life and soul, that, as the star moves not but in his sphere, I could not by her” (IV, vii, 14-16), we see that he really doesn’t. At the end of the play, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup. If Claudius did love her as he claimed, he would have stopped her, or grabbed the cup from her. Instead he says, “It is the poison’d cup! It is too late” (V, ii, 296).
Although the problems are laid out in Act I, we still see bits of rottenness throughout the rest of the play. For example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were once Hamlet’s close friends, spy on him for the King, when everyone thinks he has gone mad. Later on in Act IV, Hamlet sends the messengers off with a message to have them killed. The state becomes so bad, we see friends turning on each other, even to the point of possibly getting them killed.
If being distraught from the grief of his father’s murder wasn’t enough, Polonius is another character that brings havoc to Hamlet’s life and the state of Denmark. While trying to uncover the cause of Hamlet’s madness, Polonius does a few things that eventually cost him his life. First, him and Claudius feel Hamlet might be in love with Polonius’ daughter Ophelia, so they ask her to break up with him, and they spy on her conversation with Hamlet. Not only did Polonius cause Hamlet to lose another love in his life, he also destroyed a well rounded relationship. Then Polonius decided to spy on Gertrude’s conversation with Hamlet after making the King extremely upset because of “The Mouse Trap”. Hamlet sees Polonius move behind the curtain, and thinks it’s Claudius so he stabs him death. If Polonius wasn’t so involved in spying on Hamlet all the time, he would have never died. With all the drama going on, Ophelia drowns herself, because she cannot deal with losing Hamlet and her father. When Laertes comes home from college for his father’s funeral, Claudius gladly helps him plan a murder against Hamlet, because he obviously sees Hamlet as a threat.
Polonius is definitely the most obvious corrupted character in Hamlet. He is very open with all of his actions and plans, which eventually lead him to his death. “His death- physical corruption- is a precursor, signifying to the audience the ultimate fate of all those characters exhibiting signs of corruption” (Moriarity). Polonius is the first character to die because of corrupted behavior and is an example of what happens to corrupted individuals. His death really does reflect the consequences that one man faces when they act in such manners.
The unknown author from “Rotting from Within”, makes it a point to discuss all aspects of Polonius’ corruption. Not only does he try to be sly and spy on Hamlet but he also questions the actions of his children. He sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes at college, and tells him to find out what trouble his son is getting into. He openly ends his daughter’s relationship with Hamlet, and in the end realizes it wasn’t even necessary to do so, but still doesn’t apologize.
Evidently, corruption in a society is hard to maintain, and in this case, it was out of control. The incestuous marriage between Gertrude and Claudius, the revenge Hamlet plots, and the spying of Polonius all coil back down to one cause; the murder of King Hamlet. It is quite unfortunate that death faced almost every character in the end, except for Horatio and Fortinbras who were able to stay free of the “disease” the whole time. “A stagnant disease, with no cure, that inevitably leads to death: corruption. Thus is each of the characters in Hamlet infected, led astray of their sense of morality and loyalty and ultimately finding death as their penance” (unknown author).
Collins, Jareb. “An Introspective Look at Corruption from Hamlet”. Associated Content. 13 October 2006. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/70560/an_introspective_look_at_corruption.html
Moriarity, Robert. “William Shakespeare Hamlet: Corruption- An Incurable Disease”. October 2001. http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/hamlet_corruption.html
“Rotting from Within: The Disease of Corruption in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”. Associated Content. 28 February 2007. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/156480/rotting_from_within_the_disease_of.html
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Lodi, New Jersey: Everbind Books, 1986.