What is it to be good? What is it to be evil? The more important question would more than likely be whether the two are decided by man's society, or worse, man's morality. At one point in time a person who worked on a Sunday was to be but to death. Clearly the definition of an evil act has been slightly altered, but to see the nature, the essence of evil, one merely has to open a book. In many of Shakespeare's plays, the nature of evil is a main theme. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare show through almost every character, including Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet, that evil will cause evil. Shakespeare also shows quite beautifully through Ophelia and the entirety of the Act V Scene ii, that evil ultimately leads to ruin.
The root of all evil in Denmark is Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and new king. In the first scene the results of his treachery are revealed and in the fifth they are revealed as his own. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"(I,v,90) and it's stench is flowing from under the newly tarnished crown. As the ghost of Hamlet's father informs Hamlet, "The serpent that did sting thy father's life/Now wears the crown."(I,v,39-40). This horrid deed is what starts the murderous ball rolling and it is what causes the deaths of eight people. Claudius kills his brother because he is the villainous man who takes what he wants and wants what he can't have. Unfortunately, what he wants is the crown of Denmark and the Queen that goes with it. More unfortunately, he took the well cushioned throne, the beautifully jeweled crown and the radiant queen. Most unfortunately, as the ghost explains to Hamlet:
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With the juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment, whole effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it coursed through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood....
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatch'd(I,v,61-75). This not only puts the play in motion, it turns the life of the main character upside down. It reveals that the uncle that he surely loved, killed his father. It shows that the same uncle is a cruel enough person to put aside not only a blood tie, but an entire life of growing up with someone, so he can wear a shiny hat and have a lovely wife. Killing a king is bad. Murdering a brother is unthinkable. Though, the death of the kind is far from the only way that Claudius shows his horns.
Laertes is a shining example of how evil will cause evil. On his own, Laertes is not an overly evil, or even bad, person. With the push of his fathers murder and the manipulation of Claudius, however, he is blackened and embittered. On the instant that he hears of his father's death he runs into the castle, sword drawn and hungry for the blood of a king, he demands, "Where is my father?"(IV,v,28). After some convincing from Claudius, Laertes decides to turn his blade on Hamlet instead. When Claudius asks Laertes what he would do to get revenge for his fathers death, his answer is, "To cut his throat i'th' church."(IV,vii,126). Claudius has gotten him so full of hate that he would do anything, no matter how terrible or sinful, to avenge his father. This is reenforced by the plans he and Claudius make to finally kill Hamlet. They plan to have a duel between Hamlet and Laertes with an accidental fatal nick. "You may choose/A sword unbated, and in a pass of practice/Requite him for your father."(IV,vii,136-138). Laertes doesn't think this plan is quite right, so he adds a little personal touch:
...for that purpose, I'll anoint my sword.
I bought an uction of a mountebank
So mortal that but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood, no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from samples that virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratch'd withal. I'll touch my point
with this contagion, that if I gall him slightly,
it may be death."(IV,vii,139-147)
Laertes plans to poison the tip of his rapier so that when he inflicts a scratch, it wiil in fact be a fatal nick. The two have also planned to poison Hamlets drink as a fail-safe. The influence of Claudius Has driven Laertes from anger for his father's death to plotting the murder of a prince.
The person most effected by the ever contagious, flu-like evil is Hamlet. He was infected right when he heard that his father was murdered. When the ghost of his father tells him of his death and what he wishes Hamlet to do, Hamlet is livid at his uncle. He yells about how he cannot hesitate to avenge his father, saying, "And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,/But bear me stiffly up."(I,v,94-95). He also says, "O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!/My tabels. Meet it is I set it down That one may smile, and be a villain--/ At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark."(I,v,104-109). In this Hamlet expresses his outrage that Claudius can kill a king and live smiling for the public and acting like nothing had happened. This, among many of the things said in Act one Scene five, enrage Hamlet and increase his drive to kill his uncle. In his quest of his uncle's blood, Hamlet claims the lives of two of his childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They were brought in by the king to help him find the method hidden in Hamlet's new found madness. The two assist the king thinking that they are helping Hamlet, but he believes that they have betrayed him and are working against him with Claudius. Hamlet strongly hints to them about his theory by saying that they are like a sponge "that soaks up the King's countenance, his/ rewards, his authorities..../When he needs what [they] have/ gleaned, it is but squeezing [them] and, sponge, [they]/ shall be dry again."(IV,ii,14-20). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are like a sponge in that they soak up the rewards that the king is giving them for their help and when they are no longer needed they will be metaphorically squeezed and everything they have been given will be reclaimed by the king. When Hamlet is sent to England he reads and swaps the note that the Claudius wrote for the king of England to have Hamlet executed. He replaces it for one that he wrote telling him to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. He wrote, "Without debatement further more or less,/He should those bearers put to sudden death,/ Not shivering-time allow'd."(V,ii,45-47). Alas, those two are not the end of Hamlet's body count. Hamlet also murdered Polonius. Polonius is a character that is very nosey and it ultimately got him killed. He was constantly trying to find information about the root of Hamlet's madness. He even hides in Gertrude's closet to gather information for the king. Unfortunately for him, Hamlet thinks that it is Claudius hiding in the closet and thrusts his rapier into arras and kills Polonius while shouting, "How now? A rat! Dead for a ducat, dead."(III,iv,23). Hamlet even betts a ducat that he has killed the man behind the arras. Polonius' death is not quite as evil as that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply because it was an accident. Hamlet thought he was tasting the sweet revenge for his fathers death, but he ended up putting another person in a position to avenge their father's murder. Polonius' murder might not have been planned like the most of the others in is play, but it is certainly one of the most important, it shows that the evil that has infected Hamlet has started to effect those that aren't quite the most deserving of such drastic consequences.
The ruin caused by evil, if not shown already, is expressed magnificently through Ophelia. Ophelia has little effect on the play, but at the same time, she has a huge impact. In the parts of the play when she is alive and in her right mind she is bossed and ordered around by most of the other characters. When Hamlet seemingly goes mad and breaks up with her and when her father is killed by the man she loves, she breaks down. If one was to add in that her brother is miles and miles away and can't comfort her, she loses it. She goes straight over the coo coo's nest. Upon seeing her madness, Claudius says, "O, this is the poison of deep grief: it springs/ All from her father's death."(IV,v,75-76). He is saying that her madness is caused be father's death. The development of Ophelia's character is rather interesting. She is the only character that comes close to innocence. The only thing she ever does is listen to her boyfriend, her father and her king, and try to do what she feels is right. Her reward is a dead father, insanity and death. The real tragedy in the play is in Ophelia. Her life is ruined more then any character in the play(even the dead ones) and she had almost nothing to do with anything.
Another way that Shakespeare shows the devastating result of evil is with the final scene of the play. Of the eight deaths in the play, six of them are during this scene. It gives a much more real, physical picture of ruin then Ophelia. Claudius' plan comes into action and Hamlet is cut with the poisoned rapier. However, Hamlet and Laertes switch rapiers mid duel and Laertes is also injured. Ophelia unwittingly kills herself by drinking the poisoned drink meant for Hamlet, and Hamlet finally gets his revenge by wounding the king with the poisoned blade. Of all the main characters in he play, only one, Horatio, makes it through the play alive. Granted, if it were up to him , he would have left the stage the way of the suicidal Romans. This is a proper tragic end to a tragic play. Everyone that had anything to do with the evil that was corrupting the purity of Denmark is dead and leaving a horrific sight for Fortinbras to walk in to. He says after walking in, "This quarry cries havoc. O proud Death,/ What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,/ That thou so many princes at a shot/ So bloodily hast struck?"(V,ii,369-372). Fortinbras is awestruck and asks why Death must take so many lives and leave such a horrible mess in his wake. Death must have had his eye on Denmark for the duration of the play.
Through various characters and scenes William Shakespeare shows that if one fights fire with fire, they are more then likely going to burn their house down. He also shows the unchanging nature of evil and humanity. Without evil there would be no good and without the ambition to do good, where would the world be? With that in mind, it must be good t be evil sometimes.