According to Harold Blume, Hamlet can be seen as the embodiment of death itself, acting as a messenger to us. The play is filled with vivid images of death, decay, rottenness, and corruption, all of which align with the plot. These images are most prominent in the gravedigger scene, which serves as a culmination of the play’s themes. The corruption imagery sheds light on the actions of those in Claudius’ court, particularly Claudius himself.
In the opening of the play, Fransisco’s mention of the “bitter cold” (1.1.6) indicates that it is winter, possibly symbolizing death. The guards discussing the ghost immediately introduces a supernatural and death-related theme. In act 1 scene 2, it is apparent that King Hamlet has been absent for some time, as Gertrude has already remarried and moved on from her mournful attire. Gertrude even advises Hamlet, who is still dressed in full black mourning clothes, to be cheerful. She says, “Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.”
Seek not forever with your closed eyes
For your noble father in the dust:
You know it is common; all living beings must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
(1.2.68-73) Hamlet is unwilling to let go of his sorrow, while it seems that everyone else has moved on from the death of the old king. Despite this, Hamlet clings to his memories and grief even after everyone else departs. It is then revealed that there is a disturbing truth about the new King and Hamlet’s mother. Consequently, Hamlet immediately begins using imagery of decay to describe the world as an overgrown garden filled with unpleasant things. He feels deeply despondent and blames his mother and uncle for not understanding his emotions. The fact that his mother could remarry so quickly after his father’s death, especially to his own uncle, shocks him greatly. Moreover, he considers their ability to be happy so soon after such a loss as adding insult to injury. He predicts that such haste “cannot come to good,” but he must keep these feelings hidden within himself.
As news reaches Hamlet about sightings of his father’s ghost, his gloom intensifies further. He suspects that his father’s spirit has returned in order to warn him about something sinister: “All is not well; I doubt some foul play.” In longing for nightfall, he hopes for solace.
Till then remain calm, my soul. Although wicked actions may go unnoticed by the world, they will eventually come to light.
Marcellus’s comment (1.3.254-58) reinforces the idea that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This reference suggests that a plot or some sort of wrongdoing has been committed against King Hamlet. Hamlet and the guards realize that there must be a terrible act that has prevented the King from finding peace, something that requires revenge. In the following scene, Hamlet learns the truth about his father’s fate. The King’s ghost continues the theme of decay with his remarks about garbage, diseased substances, and spoiled milk. This theme of death persists in act 3 scene 1 during Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (3.1.58-62). He contemplates whether it would be easier to die than to face his numerous troubles. He questions if it is worthwhile to endure the grief he is experiencing or if ending his life would be a simpler solution. Hamlet is disheartened by his mother and Claudius’s behavior and believes that Ophelia has rejected him. He does not want to exist in such a corrupt world. Having come from an environment where critical thinking and ideals were valued, he now finds himself in a treacherous situation with limited life experience and overwhelming grief to cope with.Polonius initiates the scheming and deceit against Hamlet by instructing his servant Reynaldo to investigate Hamlet. This is done in order to avoid offending the king and queen with his presumption regarding his daughter. Polonius does not want them to believe that he has pressured his daughter into pursuing a relationship with Hamlet, disregarding Hamlet’s own feelings on the matter.
Hamlet, a knowledgeable individual who views the world with a fresh perspective, perceives purity and faith in Ophelia without considering her social status in comparison to his own. His sole concern is their love and the happiness they share.
When Polonius intervenes in their relationship, he employs cunning methods and maneuvers to uncover truths indirectly, using various strategies and biased assessments. Through my previous teachings and advice, you shall follow suit, my son.
(2.1.63-7) The corruption of the whole situation could have been avoided if he had refrained from intervening, leading to Hamlet’s heightened anger towards Ophelia in act 3 scene 1. He accuses her of actively participating in the ongoing spying and plotting, rendering him so disillusioned that he no longer cares. He harshly mocks her for being a fickle woman, believing that she has betrayed him, stating, “God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”
Ophelia initially lost Hamlet’s love by obeying her father and trusting him. However, she then loses her father due to his own plotting and deceit against Hamlet, whom she still has feelings for. Ophelia was unwillingly involved in her father’s schemes and believed that he knew what was best for her. When her father is killed, Ophelia’s world is shattered. She becomes mentally unstable and isolates herself. She refuses to acknowledge the corruption around her and uses childish chatter as a shield.
Despite this, she is aware on some level of consciousness what has happened, as she tells her brother that she cannot give him violets because they withered when their father died. The footnote in the Oxford edition explains that violets symbolize faithfulness. Ophelia is expressing that she had given all her faith to her father, but it was taken away when he died.
After Polonius’s death, Hamlet ridicules the corruption and decay by making a joke about where Polonius is hidden. When asked about it, Hamlet sarcastically replies that Polonius is “At supper.” (4.3.18) He implies that Polonius is not eating but being eaten by worms.
Hamlet mocks the idea that worms are the ultimate rulers in terms of diet. He says that all creatures fatten themselves up to feed maggots, showing that even the highest-ranking individuals like kings are no different from beggars when it comes to their inevitable fate.
This sarcastic remark reflects Hamlet’s view on the decay and corruption he sees around him
(4.3.20-5)He is elucidating the cosmic irony to individuals who fail to comprehend it. We rear animals to sustain ourselves, but in reality, we are nourishing ourselves for the worms’ banquet. Claudius fails to grasp the humor as he perceives himself as far superior. He merely deems Hamlet as mentally unstable. HAMLET: A person may employ a worm that has consumed a king to catch fish, and then consume the fish that has fed off that worm.
KING CLAUDIUS: What do you mean by this?
HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go progress through the guts of a beggar.
In lines 4.2.27-32, despite Claudius’s unwillingness to listen, Hamlet continues to be questioned about the whereabouts of Polonius’s body. Hamlet persistently teases and taunts Claudius before ultimately revealing the location of the body.
In heaven, send someone there to look for him. If your messenger does not find him there, search for him yourself in the other place. However, if you cannot find him within a month, you will smell him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.
Hamlet uses a similar analogy in the graveyard scene (4.3.33-6). This scene is meant to be comical and the mentions of death are real rather than just figurative. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander turns into dust; the dust is made of earth; we make soil out of that earth; and why couldn’t that soil, to which Alexander was converted, be used to plug a beer barrel? Even the mighty Caesar, who is dead and turned to clay, could stop a hole and keep the wind out (5.1.192-7). Hamlet is accepting his own mortality and recognizing the true physical destiny. He finds irony in the fact that a king could end up as a meal for a peasant, a seal for a beer-barrel, or a patch to prevent wind from entering a dwelling. Hamlet teaches us that life should be seen without bias. It is pointless to live with only our own interests in mind. He observed the putrefaction and corruption that arises from such a mindset, and it shattered him. He loved his father, and it was heartbreaking to witness him being so disparaged, especially by those who should have cherished him most. That realization destroyed Hamlet’s idealistic view of the world.