Shakespeare presents corruption as the cause of Denmark’s decay. Claudius’ corruption acts as the poison that leads to Denmark’s decay of stability and security. Likewise, Hamlet corrupting his own morals  causes his own mental decay as well as the decomposition of the State of Denmark as his insistence of following his revenge is in the expense of corrupting his morals, in turn leading to the instability and insecurity of Denmark and ultimately foreign control over the Royal Court.

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Claudius’ corruption and greed which leads him to commit regicide against his brother creates never ending corruption in Denmark as he is seen as a usurper and murderous king by the audience. This corruption of the throne is the poison that causes the decay of Denmark and could also present the decay of religion as the divine rights of king is broken with the regicide perhaps reflecting the religious upheaval and instability of England at the time due to the split from Rome and the conflicting views of Catholics and protestants who would have had different views on revenge. The corruption of the throne is apparent and is felt by the people of Denmark as seen by Marcellus’ remark on the state of the country suing “something is rotten in the State of Denmark.” During Elizabethan times the majority of people believed the health of a nation was connected to the legitimacy of its king, however the illegitimacy of Claudius due to regicide causes the decay of Denmark.

Perhaps Shakespeare suggests a connection between external decay and internal, systemic decay. The external decay being the physical corruption that Claudius brings about with the ‘most foul and unnatural murder’ and the internal decay being the poisoning of the political and social affairs of Denmark as seen by the foreign takeover with Fortinbras and the domestic problems leading to a bloodbath in the Royal court of Denmark. Denmark’s decay is further reflected through Hamlet’s comment about the Royal Court saying “tis is an unweeded garden, that grows to seed;/ Things rank and gross in nature.” This is an extended metaphor for the corruption of Denmark which comes forth from the centre; the Court, and into society like a growing, spreading unweeded garden causing troubled times which is seen later on by the death of many of the characters including Hamlet himself. The image of decay is further emphasised through Hamlet’s comment about Claudius 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.” This is a symbol of corruption and decay of Denmark as the worm represents the dead king’s corpse which has decayed and been consumed by the worm which is later used in fishing and is thus eaten by the fish which ends up eaten by Claudius thus Hamlet accusing Claudius of eating a dead corpse of the old king is symbolic of the corruption of the State of Denmark as it reflects the regicide committed by Claudius. Therefore, Shakespeare presents decay by showing how Claudius’ corruption poisons Denmark and infects it with decay.

Furthermore, Claudius’ corruption which leads to the decay and rot of Denmark infects Hamlet causing him to develop an obsession with physical corruption as he corrupts his morals and obsesses over death and rot. Hamlet can no longer see the beauty of the world around him as he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he sees nothing but “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” and this is due to the melancholy that engulfs him after his father’s murder and the corruption of Denmark. He even associates his mother’s marriage with rot and decay when he refers to the “Royal bed of Denmark” as “enseamed bed”. His mother’s haste remarriage affects the whole of Denmark and the image of her marriage bed being the bed of Denmark goes back to the view that with the regicide committed by Claudius, corruption has become innate to Denmark and the decay and rot that comes with corruption spreads from the throne to society.  Hamlet’s revenge requires him to corrupt his own morals leading to his own mental stability decay as well as his physical decay with his death. The corruption that has engulfed Denmark and poisoned it infects Hamlet thus urges him to act to stop it through revenge. However, this revenge is out of his character and as William Hazlitt sates that Hamlet is ‘a great moraliser’ thus he needs to corrupt his own moral compass to act upon his revenge. Hamlet prolonging his revenge by acting mad is all due to his moral compass and his dread as an existentialist hero. He goes through the philosophical journey of finding the morality behind his revenge and this leads to his hamartia of inaction which leads to his tragic death and many others.

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Finally, Hamlet’s corruption of morals and his insistence of revenge also contributes to the decay of Denmark alongside the corrupt throne due to regicide. His insistence on revenge and the delay in his corruption of morals leads not only to his death but the unnecessary deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes and Gertrude and as Coddon states, Hamlet’s madness is “an instrument of social and political disorder” which is true as his revenge and corruption of morals also leads to the decay and destruction of Denmark with a foreign power taking over the crown. Fortinbras takes over the throne and the rot and decay is inevitable and Fortinbras is needed to purify Denmark’s and this is demonstrated when Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, a former jester lamenting on how all the parts of Yorick he knew the man’s “infinite jest”, warmth and genitality but also physical attributes such as his tongue and flesh are gone forever thus realizing that all men, even the most influential leaders in history like Alexander the Great return to ‘dust’. He also obsesses over the body’s process of decay and asks the gravediggers for detailed descriptions of how long it takes for flesh to rot off the bones. Hamlet’s continued fixation on the inescapable process of dying and decay shows that he feels incapable of stopping the decay and rot of Denmark due to it being engulfed in corruption and indeed in the end a foreign leader is needed to take over Denmark and cleanse it from its corruption. Denmark had to rot in order to flourish just as human flesh decays and fertilizes the ground beneath it. Therefore, due to the existence of a tragic hero; Hamlet in the state of Denmark, the decay if Denmark is inevitable as this tragic hero is the leader and core of the state.

Overall, Shakespeare presents corruption as the cause of Denmark’s decay. The corrupt throne which is the core of the country is decaying due to Claudius’ regicide and this infects Hamlet’s mortals leading to his own corruption and mental decay ultimately leading to the destruction of the state of Denmark and the succession of a foreign king.

Cite this article as: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team), "Decay in Shakespeare’s Hamlet," in SchoolWorkHelper, 2019, https://schoolworkhelper.net/decay-in-shakespeares-hamlet/.
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