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In Hamlet, imagery of disease, poison and decay, are used by William Shakespeare for many purposes. Marcellus’ line in Act I illustrates the use of this imagery very well, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Corruption is rampant, like a contagious disease infecting the court. The atmosphere of disease serves to heighten the audience’s disgust for the events that are taking place in the play. Secondly, disease leads to death, so the diseased society of Denmark is doomed. Because of this sense of doom, there is a slight foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending. The tragic atmosphere is enhanced by the motif of disease and decay. These descriptions of disease, poison, and decay help us to understand the bitter relationships, the anxious, chaotic atmosphere, and also the emotional and moral decay of the characters existing in the play.
The image of decay is first used at the end of Act I to help comprehend the depression Hamlet feels in his first soliloquy about suicide. When Hamlet releases the words “O that this too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” (I.ii, 129-130) he communicates how he wishes to not exist in this world anymore. An image of Hamlet’s flesh rotting and combining with the soil is produced. At this moment, Hamlet’s true emotions liberate, and his pain and his yearn for death can be felt. Hamlet continues to say “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on’t, ah, fie, ’tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.”(I.ii, 133-137) Here, Hamlet feels that the world around him is useless and in constant chaos. By creating these vivid images of death and decay, Shakespeare lets us peer into Hamlet’s soul and recognize his real underlying motivations.
Claudius’ relationship with Hamlet is harsh, for he harbors a great hatred for his nephew and even feels threatened and at risk when he is by Hamlet. Claudius says “But like the owner of a foul disease. To keep it from divulging, let it feed even on the pith of life.”(IV.i, 21-23) Claudius speaks these lines when he is with the queen after the death of Polonius. The King says that he is the owner of a foul disease- Hamlet. The degree to which he despises Hamlet and his goal to prevent him from ruining this new life of his is unveiled. This shows us how endless Claudius’ hatred is towards Hamlet.
Claudius’ extreme anger and frustration is displayed when he says, “For like the hectic in my blood he rages, And though must cure me.”(IV.iii, 62-63) Claudius describes Hamlet as a vicious disease traveling through his own blood. Hamlet is trapped so deep in the midst of Claudius’ utter hatred of him, that Claudius wants Hamlet dead. Only when Hamlet is gone, Claudius can be cured from this ghastly disease that he suffers. The images of disease express the genuine feelings felt by Claudius. Imagery highlights the poor, horrid relationship that exists between father and stepson, uncle and nephew, king and heir. Shakespeare illuminates Claudius’ true sentiment with these images of disease.
Hamlet gravely carries a reciprocal hatred for his uncle who has now become even more connected to him as his step-father and who has also risen in rank to serve as the powerful king of England. Hamlet’s knowledge of Claudius killing his father stems his hatred, therefore Hamlet can not feel anything but disgust and loathing for him. “Not where he eats, but where ‘a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creature else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.”(IV.iii; 19-22) Claudius has just asked Hamlet where Polonius is, and Hamlet replies ever so mockingly by saying he is at dinner.
Hamlet killed Polonius and hates Claudius so much that he can even speak of the death of the King’s friend with such vulgarity. By saying “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,”(IV. iii, 25-26) Hamlet again proves his hatred towards the King. Through his blatant rudeness, Hamlet surprises the King with the fact that even Kings can decay and be eaten. Hamlet’s smart and sneaky comments have underlying meanings that reveal to us his deep, eternal hatred for the king. The images of decay and rotting expose us to Hamlet’s true feelings for the King.
The morality of several characters also decay. For example, Gertrude knowingly commits adultery by marrying her husband’s brother only months after his death. Only after Hamlet’s exchange with her in Act III does she appear to feel guilt or remorse for what she has done. Gertrude may be an obviously morally corrupt character, but the center of the play’s evil plots and true decadence resides in Claudius. Claudius’ list of sins include the murder of his brother and usurp of his kingdom then marriage of his sister-in-law. In Act III he openly admits his guilt and tries to pray for forgiveness but is unable to put his heart into it, showing that he does not truly repent his sins. In addition, Claudius is also a manipulator and a hypocrite. This is revealed in Act IV when Laertes comes to Claudius demanding revenge, and the king builds up Laertes’ rage and directs it towards Hamlet. He plans various conniving schemes such as sending Hamlet to England to unknowingly be executed. When this plot fails, he stoops down even lower as to try to poison him.
But Hamlet can be said to deserve some of these instances as punishments, though for Hamlet’s moral character also changes completely through the course of the play. Initially, Hamlet was extremely cautious; he was not sure of the true nature and goodness of the ghost and even doubted if Claudius had actually murdered his father, hence his decision to not act until he was sure, as shown by his “Rogue and Peasant Slave” soliloquy at the end of Act II. Likewise, at the end of Act III he again puts off killing Claudius because he does not want his father’s murderer to go to heaven, which would occur if he died while praying. Furthermore, Hamlet was once very conscientious, but in Act IV he suddenly stabs Polonius through the drapery, thinking it is Claudius, and from that point his ethics and morality falls rapidly downhill. Finally, he ruthlessly sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his old friends and confidants, to their deaths simply for serving the king and also to save himself.
His “How all occasions inform against me” soliloquy in Act IV demonstrates how his priorities have changed too, and he will finally attempt to act in order for revenge and also to preserve his honor. Hamlet speaks of Fortinbras’ bravery and his own cowardice and concludes, “O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV,iv,65-66) This Hamlet of bloody thoughts and revenge is totally different from the previous Hamlet who once had to be sure that Claudius was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before his slaughter. In this play moral principles within numerous characters experience a substantial decay.
It is evident that Shakespeare uses the imagery of poison, decay and disease to develop and enhance the various conflicts surrounding the play and also the heavy, disarrayed atmosphere hovering over it. In Hamlet we truly see what a great deal of depth imagery provides us with. The imagery of disease, poison and decay gives us a chance to truly understand the complicated emotions that the characters experience in their mind and soul. The reader perceives the pervasive chaotic mood, helping them to better understand all aspects of this classic work. Also, with the imagery created by Shakespeare, we as readers, can actually comprehend the feelings that are experienced by the characters in Hamlet, that are not always obvious, but remain definitely very important to secure optimum understanding of a great piece of literature.