What is the dramatic importance of corruption and disease in Hamlet?
There are many factors, which influenced Shakespeare to write tragedies such as Hamlet. Many themes suffuse the play of Hamlet but the most important which shall be concentrated on is that of disease and corruption. There is use of powerful imagery that is linked with the theme of disease and corruption as they are continually repeated throughout the play to make a point stand out to the audience. The play would have been immediately accessible to a Shakespearean audience because of this plot content. During this time there was a belief in the divine right of Kings where the king of that era believed he had the right to the throne. Furthermore, the mood of the time played a great part influencing the themes of the play.
Corruption is first introduced by Claudius and eventually seeps outwards infecting the rest of the characters in the play. (Excluding Hamlet as he is perceptive to the corruption of others and does not let himself be corrupted). Claudius corrupts Old Hamlet by killing him and Old Hamlet symbolises the nation of Denmark, so it is slowly being corrupted and diseased, his decaying body represents this ‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be…damned incest.’ He wants all he has worked for not to be ruined by his brother.
During Act 1 Scene 3 (the Advice Scene), Polonius acts as a perfect father towards Laertes, ‘Thou friends thou hast…grapple them to thy soul.’ Polonius’ advice here is that the friends Laertes has, he should grasp them close to his body. His behaviour is of a great father figure but in the following Act (2.1) it can be contrasted when he sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes as he leaves for France, this is important as he corrupts Reynaldo to spy on his own son. ‘By indirections, find directions out.’ He has to go indirectly to find out what Laertes engages with at France.
The name Reynaldo is old slang terminology for fox. Reynaldo is a characternym and implies someone who is wily and sly. ‘Reynaldo and the fox’ was a popular medieval story and then after the name Reynaldo has always been in connection with the word fox.
By being a good father he looks out for the best interest of his children, Ophelia is a good example, as Polonius does not want to see her with Hamlet.
‘I will not…have you so slander any moment leisure as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.’
He commands her to do so as he says ‘Look to ’t, I charge you.’
In Act 2 Scene 1, Ophelia speaks to Polonius after Hamlet entered her room looking ‘pale as hi shirt’ and dressed with ‘no hat upon his head,’ these are the first signs of his assumed madness.
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She continues to say he examined her face for a short period of time and said nothing with a ‘piteous and profound sigh’ then left. Polonius believes that Hamlet has gone mad because of his love for Ophelia, ‘This is the very ecstasy of love’ the word ‘ecstasy’ means madness. Hamlet has chosen not to talk to Ophelia as his perception sees that she has been corrupted. The play contains the theme of real madness (Ophelia) and assumed madness (Hamlet where he seems to be mad). Ophelia inherits this madness after the death of her father, she begins to ‘sing’ but when she speaks there is method in her insanity. ‘They say the owl was a baker’s daughter’ a folk tale where the daughter transforms into an owl. However, when Hamlet speaks he does not make sense at all ‘Your are a fish monger.’ Compared to Ophelia’s madness this shows that Hamlet is false and only seeming to be mad.
Act 1 Scene 2, Hamlet becomes aware of corruption in Denmark ‘Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.’
Claudius continues his work of corruption and the reader can draw comparisons with Macbeth where his actions had brought about his own downfall, this also happens to Claudius. His political skills, which he uses to corrupt family and friends eventually, lead to the death of all the main characters of the play (with the exception of Horatio). Claudius’ power of corruption, to a certain extent, reveals a lot about his character as a sneaky and devilish person. And also that he uses corruption as security to himself however, ‘security is mortals chiefest enemy’ a quote from the witches in Macbeth. Rosencratz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlets closest friends ‘being so young days brought up with him’ have been overpowered by Claudius in his conquest to rid Hamlet. This was a great task to achieve, as they were the closest of friends. Act 2 Scene 2, both characters behave differently towards Hamlet than usual ‘My honour’d Lord!’ and ‘My most dear Lord!’ They continually ingratiate themselves to him.
Shakespeare wrote tragedies during a sombre and gloomy period. There was a distinct change in his writing attributed tot he possible death of his close friends, Germaine Greer says ‘the former deaths on the block, as the cause of his disillusionment and pessimism.’ Greer continues to say that with correct interpretation the tragedies ‘do not reveal a spirit of gloom and disillusionment.’ Shakespeare wrote his four most important tragedies in this period; Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. During James 1st reign as king there was the Gunpowder Plot to kill him, known as treason. The only way in which this could have happened was if one of James’ people turned against him. He thought that he was a popular King among his people because they were sycophantic towards him. The Gunpowder Plot can be linked towards Hamlet as Claudius poisoned his brother to take the throne. He was also known to have been desperately paranoid as he thought witches possessed the land, thus giving the idea for Shakespeare to write a play involving the supernatural. He had chosen to write tragedies because he had already written a series of comedies and wanted a change of genre. Also the Elizabethan audience enjoyed the revenge tragedy.
‘Hamlet’ draws on a typical Senecan Tragedy. Seneca was a philosopher and playwright, he believed that a revenge play such as ‘Hamlet’ should always contain a ghost (Old Hamlet). Also that in the tragedy a character will have a character flaw and as a result of that flaw it shall lead to their death. Seneca’s plays that were performed proved to be rather popular. Shakespeare used the Greek tragedy and themes to great effect in his work, no doubt earning the title as a great playwright.
Marcellus, Francisco and Bernardo are all uneasy as they wonder if they will witness another apparition. The ghost is of much importance to the play as it is the tool of revenge. Act 1 Scene 2, Horatio confines the ghost as a ‘mote it is to trouble the minds eye.’ ‘Mote’ is a speck of dust so he justifies that even though the speck is small, once it reaches the sight of an eye then there will be trouble.
The ghost enters and is in a state of purgatory, he can not go to heaven unless his sins have been repented for. Horatio continues to give an account of the spirits which play parts in Rome’s history ‘Neptune’s empire’ – the sea. Neptune was the Roman god of the sea.
There is historical reference to crossing the ghosts path ‘I’ll cross it, though it blast me.’ Horatio is saying that’s he will cross its path even if it curses him, by crossing the path of a ghost one risks being put in its power. Horatio is a respected soldier ‘Thou art a scholar,’ and the three soldiers rely heavily upon him. The audience becomes aware of Horatios high authority here but also his intelligence, ‘This bodies some strange eruption to our state,’ Horatio believes that an upheaval of the state has caused the ghost’s appearance.
Old Hamlet first appears in the play in Act 1 Scene 4 as the ‘Ghost beckons Hamlet.’ During Act 1 Scene 5 however, is when Old Hamlet speaks to his son. The former King of Denmark gives orders to Hamlet to ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.’ Old Hamlet’s speech in Act 1 Scene 5 lines 47 – 98 serves as a metaphor for the corruption that is effectively transferred from his body to the whole of Denmark. There are many comments to disease during his speech ‘Most lazar – like…and loathsome crust, all my smooth body.’ He describes his death as leprosy and how it embarks his smooth body as a loathsome crust. ‘The imagery of disease and decay in the play is countered by a divine providence which shapes the action’ – Wilson.
‘The poison poured by Claudius into Old Hamlet’s ear has corroded the fabric not merely of an individual but of an entice society, and it is the progress of the members of a diseased state that the play is concerned to trace.’ (Scragg 1988) – A more modern critic’s view.
The King’s right to the throne has been taken away, he has not told of his sins so they cannot be repented ‘blossoms of my sin.’ Also the element of divine right where a King believes that he was placed as king of that country by an act of God and that right of Old Hamlets has been taken away by Claudius (his brother). Throughout Shakespearean times people were very superstitious and believed that if a ghost appears back to earth in spiritual form then that ghost had been wronged and will stay on earth until that injustice has been overturned, in this case acting revenge. During the Elizabethan audiences this would make perfect sense but to contemporary audiences the ghost would represent something beyond belief.
‘On every occasion repulsive images of sickness make their appearance…The corruption of land and people throughout Denmark is understood as an imperceptible and irresistible process of poisoning.’ (Clemen 1951).
Not only is corruption and disease focussed on Old Hamlet but Gertrude as well. In Act3 Scene 4 she uncovers that’s she sees ‘black and grained spots’ which will ‘not leave their tinet’ (can not be cleaned away). Hamlet tells his mother of ‘rank sweat…stewed in corruption’ repeatedly referring to corruption ‘whilst rank corruption…infects unseen.’ With iterative imagery. The ghost appears and Gertrude shouts that’s her son is mad ‘Alas, he’s mad!’ This is because he sees Old Hamlet in that very room but she does not. She can not see the ghost as she is too steeped in corruption and the only ones able to see the ghost are the pure characters e.g. Horatio, Hamlet and Bernardo (at the beginning of the play).
At the start of the play the audience are not at ease as there is a question to start the play off ‘Who’s there?’ Then with a series of short and sharp sentences Francisco makes the audience aware of disease ‘And I am sick at heart,’ the relevance to this is that the state of Denmark is ill. The theme of corruption and spying can also be detected near the end of Act1 Scene 1 where Marcellus speaks of Hamlet ‘I this morning know, where we shall find him most conveniently.’ So the audience is aware of the spying on Hamlet so soon in the play, orders of the new King Claudius.
Claudius is the character of corruption but to disease he seems impervious, he comments that’s Hamlet causes his blood to rage.
In Act 5 Scene 2 the final scene, Hamlet finally takes revenge for his fathers death (by killing Claudius), his mother has already died from the poisoned drink (intended for Hamlet). Laertes asks for forgiveness with ‘noble Hamlet’ and then he dies. Rosencratz and Guildenstern have already been killed when they went with Hamlet across to England. As the audience knows Polonius died from Hamlet stabbing him and Ophelia drowned as a result of her madness. All these characters were under the influence of corruption (however the Queen only slightly) and now have all slain. This technique used by Shakespeare is called catharsis where the characters die to solve all problems. Due to Hamlets character flaw of hesitation and pondering on a thought for too long ‘To be or not to be’ (he contemplates suicide), he dies as a result of that flaw as in a Senecan tragedy.
The play Hamlet brings up many themes such as Appearance against Reality, corruption and disease. The latter two have been entwined within the play as Shakespeare reveals corruption of a whole society and symbolises disease slowly injecting into Old Hamlet as it has done with Denmark.
Corruption and disease are halted once Claudius is killed and Hamlet ‘a larger than life hero’ (Wilson) physically cuts out the root of disease. So both themes play an important role towards this play and without them Hamlet would not have been as intriguing or as successful.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare with biography of Germaine Greer - Published by (Harper Collins, 1994)
Encarta Encyclopaedia 2000
Longman Literature Shakespeare – Hamlet
Vishal Shanker – 2,161 words