The pages of Hamlet are tainted with somber images of poison and disease, which also cast a shadow over the corruption that is present in both past and future events at the castle. The poison used by Claudius to kill King Hamlet spreads throughout the country, leading to a widespread sense that “something is rotten in Denmark”, as noted by Marcellus (I.4.90). Shakespeare consistently employs words related to sickness throughout the play, effectively illustrating the unhealthy state of affairs affecting not only Denmark, but also the characters themselves.
In the opening scene, Shakespeare effectively portrays a sense of cold and apathy. The play begins in the chilly, dark night, with Barnardo and Francisco standing guard on the walls of Elsinore, anticipating the impending revenge of their enemy, Fortinbras (I.1). As midnight strikes, Barnardo remarks on the bitter cold and his own disheartened state, subtly alluding to the prevailing sentiment in Denmark (I.1.8). The death of their beloved King Hamlet and the subsequent remarriage of the Queen have left the people disillusioned and emotionally cold. As the scene progresses, the Ghost emerges from the ominous shadows (I.1). Horatio, who had initially doubted the men’s claims of seeing the Ghost, ponders on its purpose as it vanishes into the fortress. He tells his companions about King Hamlet’s battles and draws a parallel between the appearance of the Ghost and the omens observed in Rome before Julius Caesar’s assassination. Horatio references how “the graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak…the moon was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse” (I.1.120). This reinforces Horatio’s belief that the haunting Ghost is a premonition for Denmark, just as Rome’s pale, ill-fated moon foreshadowed dark events. Even future occurrences are bleakly depicted in the text, emphasizing Fortune’s potent influence.The previous mention of this force can be found in Hamlet’s soliloquy where he speaks about the difficulties and challenges that life throws at him, using the phrase “slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune”. He further describes himself as being affected by deep and troubling thoughts, using the phrase “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III.1.90), which also portrays a sense of illness or disease.
In the opening scenes of the play, even men from outside the country can perceive the decay within. Claudius scornfully comments that Fortinbras believes our state is disordered and broken due to our late brother’s death, referring to both the political confusion and the diseased state of our health. He further remarks that the dying king of Norway is weak and bedridden, barely aware of his nephew Fortinbras’ intention to attack Denmark. This universal sickness afflicts all men, regardless of their nationality. This notion of one person being unaware of another’s hidden actions is reminiscent of other plots in the play.
In the scene where Claudius, the newly crowned villain, discusses his plans to send Hamlet away to England, he reflects on how desperate measures are sometimes necessary to cure desperate diseases (IV.3.8). He views Hamlet as mentally ill and compares him to a fever raging in his own body that must be cured (IV.3.65). Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, laments the presence of sinful and repulsive things in the world that seem to dominate it completely (I.2.136). He describes the world as an untended garden overrun with weeds (I.2.136). Feeling overwhelmed and disoriented, Hamlet wishes he could vanish like dew and questions why God prohibits suicide (I.2.136). He further emphasizes how the world feels monotonous and lifeless, echoing the recurring theme of bleakness throughout Shakespeare’s work. Continuing his thoughts, Hamlet emphasizes how a single flaw or illness can tarnish the reputation of an entire nation or individual, illustrating how even a small amount of evil can overshadow all goodness, which has happened to his family and country (I.4.24).
In subsequent scenes, Hamlet continues to use these weak images. While mocking Polonius, he states, “For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion” (II.2.181-182), expressing his belief that even the life-giving sun can bring life to repugnant disease. Later, upon discovering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visiting him under orders from Claudius rather than friendship, he remarks, “this most excellent canopy, the air this majestic roof adorned with golden fire, why, it appears to me as nothing more than a foul and infectious gathering of vapors” (II.2.299-303), evidently another grim description of the current circumstances.
Laertes also used words that contributed to the theme of disease when he spoke to Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet. He warned her by saying, “The canker galls the infants of spring, too oft before their buttons be closed” (I.3.39-40). In this metaphor, the “canker” represents a worm and “gall” represents breaking the skin. The “Infants of spring” refers to young spring flowers with unopened buds. Laertes compares Ophelia to a young and innocent bud, and the canker represents her love for Hamlet. Since Laertes cannot marry her, he believes that Hamlet will break her heart, leaving her like a flower bud eaten by a worm. Additionally, if Ophelia were to become intimate with Hamlet, it would ruin her reputation and the same worm that had hollowed her heart would have caused shame. The scene is filled with desolate images of decay and sickness.
One significant moment in the play highlights again the presence of disease. This occurs when the Ghost recounts the manner of his death. He reveals that Claudius, during a moment of security, covertly stole in and poured cursed hebenon juice from a vial into his ears. The result was a putrid liquid that caused his blood to coagulate like eager droplets into milk. This vile poison produced a revolting crust upon his previously healthy body. Thereby, this vivid illness signifies the intentional and deadly contamination inflicted by Claudius, which mirrors the corruption of Denmark under his rule.
Among the scenes in this text are those featuring Gertrude and the depiction of disease. When conversing with Hamlet, he suggests that she is incapable of responding due to being “apoplexed”, immobilized, as a result of recent tragic events in Denmark (III.4.74). She later reflects, “to my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is) each toy seems prologue to some great amiss, so full of artless jealousy is guilt it spills itself in fearing to be split” (IV.5.18), indicating that her guilt-ridden emotions amplify the impact of every unfortunate occurrence.
Hamlet must be the one to clean up what is “rotten in Denmark,” but he is also contaminated with a sickness of thought. While some argue that his madness is feigned, it only serves to highlight his lack of resolution. Throughout the play, Hamlet has opportunities to rid Denmark of its problems, yet he constantly hesitates due to the sickness of his mind. This contrasts sharply with Laertes quick and passionate decisions, who would have taken drastic action if he were in Hamlet’s position. The end of the play sees each character’s sickness leading to their downfall, as their plans backfire on them. Claudius’ deadly poison ends his own life, as well as Gertrude and Laertes’ for trusting in him. Meanwhile, Ophelia’s obvious mental disease leads to her demise. Unfortunately, Hamlet, the indecisive tragic hero who could have ended the plague on Denmark, is unable to do so because he is afflicted with his own illness as well.