Hamlet and the Theme of CorruptionGet Your
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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.
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.
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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.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Hamlet and the Theme of Corruption
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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impossibility of Certainty
What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it) is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses many questions that other plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost have reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself deluded? Moving to more earthly matters: How can we know for certain the facts about a crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of Hamlet’s mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything about the afterlife?
Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to act appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that the play shows us how many uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many unknown quantities are taken for granted when people act or when they evaluate one another’s actions.
The Complexity of Action
Directly related to the theme of certainty is the theme of action. How is it possible to take reasonable, effective, purposeful action? In Hamlet, the question of how to act is affected not only by rational considerations, such as the need for certainty, but also by emotional, ethical, and psychological factors. Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible to act in a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and violently. The other characters obviously think much less about “action” in the abstract than Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting effectively. They simply act as they feel is appropriate. But in some sense they prove that Hamlet is right, because all of their actions miscarry. Claudius possesses himself of queen and crown through bold action, but his conscience torments him, and he is beset by threats to his authority (and, of course, he dies). Laertes resolves that nothing will distract him from acting out his revenge, but he is easily influenced and manipulated into serving Claudius’s ends, and his poisoned rapier is turned back upon himself.
The Mystery of Death
In the aftermath of his father’s murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over the course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world. And, since death is both the cause and the consequence of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of revenge and justice—Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet initiates Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and Claudius’s death is the end of that quest.
The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. Hamlet’s grief and misery is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he commits suicide, he will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian religion’s prohibition of suicide. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if he or she were not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes complex moral considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.
The Nation as a Diseased Body
Everything is connected in Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and the health of the state as a whole. The play’s early scenes explore the sense of anxiety and dread that surrounds the transfer of power from one ruler to the next. Throughout the play, characters draw explicit connections between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation. Denmark is frequently described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius and Gertrude, and many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a supernatural omen indicating that “[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.67). The dead King Hamlet is portrayed as a strong, forthright ruler under whose guard the state was in good health, while Claudius, a wicked politician, has corrupted and compromised Denmark to satisfy his own appetites. At the end of the play, the rise to power of the upright Fortinbras suggests that Denmark will be strengthened once again.
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