Corruption and Mortality in Hamlet Hamlet is arguably one of the most complex characters in literature, and most certainly within Shakespeare’s realm. He can be both weak and admirable, and he defies the explanation of many readers I am sure. Death is a constant presence in HAMLET, right from the beginning of the play the themes of death and mortality set in with the death of King Hamlet. From then on, young Hamlet cannot stop questioning the meaning of life and more importantly, its’ eventual end. In Hamlet’s mind, it is not the idea of dying that frightens him; it’s the uncertainty of what comes after death.
This uncertainty overcomes him with obsession over death, suicide and mortality as a whole. Throughout the play, many key characters make references to death, which in a way corrupt them as it goes on. By the end of the play, all of these corrupted characters are eliminated, almost as if so everything can be right in Denmark again. It seems Hamlet is always questioning death; the uncertainty of it is unsettling to him. He wonders what happens when one dies, if one is murdered do they go to heaven, and of course the famous question he poses in act 3; To be, or not to be, that is the question.
In this soliloquy, Hamlet is musing about death, but what kind of death and whose he might be referring to is not 100% clear. The speech holds many confusing and unanswered queries; he could be contemplating suicide, or he could be thinking of the risks that killing Claudius may behold. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution, Is sicklied o’er with the pale case of thought” (III. i. 91-93) In this excerpt from the speech Hamlet is describing that his conscience won’t let him kill, but does he mean himself? Or could he mean Claudius?
I think it’s safe to say that BOTH are plausible answers. Hamlet feels suppressed by his conscience not to murder Claudius, even though it is for revenge. However he also is “sicklied o’er” with thoughts about killing himself, which he also knows is wrong. In either case, his conscience is indeed making a coward of him. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer, The slings and arrows of fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them. (III. i. 64-66) This selection from the speech is more obviously directed at thoughts of suicide.
Hamlet is calling into question the meaning of life; is it better to suffer a bad fortune, or to take arms against yourself (and commit suicide). Aside from the famed “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet makes another statement in reference to suicide in act 1 that is worth studying. “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” …Hamlet believes that, although physically capable of suicide, most all human being choose life despite the injustices of the world.
He goes further to say how “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” the uses of the world are. His choice of words here is very revealing of Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts, any one who uses such words to describe the world surely does not sound as though they want to live in it. Ophelia too, brings up an important theme in the meaning of life towards the end of the play when she says “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (IV. v. 43-44) “What we are” and “what we may be” are both issues that Hamlet struggles with as well, and it’s especially visible in the “O that this too dulled flesh would melt” soliloquy.
What Ophelia brings to surface here are questions of whether God helps to direct us where to go or not, and whether there is even a meaning to life or it is simply a prison we are all kept in. Though brief, this statement is beautiful and applicable to thoughts of mortality and suicide at the same time. Where Hamlet uses words such as “stale” and “unprofitable” to describe the meaning of life, Ophelia questions it with a sort of grace; seeking out God for an explanation of “what we may be”. The theme of suicide in Hamlet goes almost hand in hand with that of corruption.
The most obvious implication of this is the statement made by Marcellus, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” as the Ghost of King Hamlet leads young Hamlet off. In fact, MANY things are rotten in Denmark throughout the course of the tale. In Richard Altick’s Article “Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality”, he makes many references to images of decay and death throughout the play. He notes that “the cancerous nature of evil” (169) is about to come out in the following conversation between Hamlet and the ghost, just after Marcellus states that something is rotten.
He’s correct, of course, as the speech repeats the word “foul” upward of four times. Altick warns readers that from Marcellus’ statement on, they won’t forget the image of death and corruption in this play thus forward. He is right, of course, as mention is made throughout the play. Even much further on in Act 5 do the gravediggers make direct mention of human beings being rotten much before they die; “Faith, if he not be rotten before he die (as we have many pocky corses nowadays that will scarce hold the laying in). ” (V. i. 68-171) The gravedigger is speaking of plague, yes, but could he also be speaking of other “rotten” aspects of an individual? Most definitely. Another foul image that the article mentions comes from Act 4, where Claudius brings up disease and applies it to Hamlet’s corruption; “So much was our love, We would not understand what was most fit, But, like the owner of a foul disease, To keep it from divulging, let it feed, Even on the pith of life. ” (IV. i. 20-24) Though all the talk of decay and rot seems morbid, these thoughts were far more ordinary in Elizabethan England.
Infant mortality rates were very high and plagues swept nations without fail, Altick makes brief mention of this in his article saying “Every Elizabethan citizen knew from personal observation the reek of a wound or sore. ” He goes on to say that it was habitual for Shakespeare to use allusions of rotting flesh to symbolize ideas in his plays, “In Hamlet however, he not only lays heavier emphasis upon bodily corruption, but stresses the revolting odors that accompany the process. ” (167)
Altick claims that the corruption of “mortal flesh” begins with Marcellus’s famous first statement, and ends with Hamlet’s interaction with the Gravediggers in Act 5, saying the theme of corruption climaxes in this scene. “All the preceding imagery and word-play dealing with the odor of mortality have pointed toward this scene. ” (172) I find this to be true; Hamlet’s attitude towards death completely differs from that of the gravediggers, but in a way that is eye-opening to readers and brings much of the prior events to the surface. His view of death is not inconsistent with heirs, but it is different in that their implications are more physical, and comical than his. As Hamlet peruses the skulls in the graveyard speaking of who they belonged to and what they may have accomplished, the gravediggers sing of digging and talking of the dead buried there as if it’s nothing, getting particular enough as to remark casually on the number of years it takes for a corpse to rot after being laid to rest. When Hamlet comes upon the skull of the King’s jester, Yorick, he compliments his friend’s memory calling him “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
He hath bore me on his back a thousand times. ” (V. i. 191-93) Only after this praise to the skull of his friend does Hamlet realize the stench and morbid appearance of the skull, questioning Horatio if the skulls of all the deceased appear like so. Hamlet’s speech to Yorick’s skull represents a philosophy of death, where normally Hamlet is appalled by the moral affliction of the living, seeing the skull of someone he adored encourages his realization that death rids people of their differences, everyone is alike when they no longer exist in the natural world.
Towards the end of his article, Altick makes a very valid point about the graveyard scene at the end of Hamlet. He notes that here is a graveyard, the ultimate symbol of mortality, and of course after the endless references of rot, decay, corruption, death, and suicide throughout the play, what better place to wrap up Hamlet’s confusing path than a graveyard. “Here is the yawning churchyard, the place where flesh, whose corruption my have begun in life, was laid in earth—and where flesh continued to rot after death, its fetid exhalations assaulting men’s noses…and warning them of the danger in fatal contagion. (172) This is something I personally did not recognize when reading the play, but now that I reiterate, Altick is precise. After all of Hamlet’s struggle and fear based around death and what becomes of one when he dies, he is led (by fate? ) to this graveyard and in the speech to his old friend Yorick’s skull everything pieces itself together in his mind. Pieced apart, this statement briefly and vaguely describes the story that has just played out. The “yawning churchyard” where Hamlet has come and will unbeknownst to him realize what he’s been wondering.
The place where flesh, whose corruption began while living is laid in the earth, these souls in the graveyard were corrupted just as Hamlet and other characters in the play were, but now they lie equal in the ground, no two very different from one another. All the skulls assault the noses of men equally, even though some are the skulls of plain folk and some the skulls of royalty. The skulls are a “warning” as Altick states because although all alike now, they all have some reasoning behind why they lie there now, that some may or may not know of.
A warning not to follow in their path may be what he speaks of. The concept that the ongoing theme of corruption in Hamlet is brought to surface here in the graveyard scene is certainly one for thought and one that makes moral sense. At the close of his article, Richard Altick states that “The evil residing in the soul of one man cannot be contained there, nor can a single sin be without far-reaching consequences. Insidiously, irresistibly, it spreads into a whole society. (176) This is worded perfectly for the way the foulness of death spreads throughout Elsinore and the characters of Hamlet. Eight of nine key characters in the play are dead by the end of it, why? Because as each of these characters became corrupted in some way, that corruption spread through the society they dwelled in. This key starting point to this is Marcellus’ note that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and from then on the images of death and corruption are clear.
When Hamlet pronounces his speech to Yorick’s skull in Act 5 and realizes that death truly eliminates all physical and mental differences between people, it’s clear that in order for the state of Denmark to be mended of its rotten state, those corrupted must too be eliminated. Though not all of Hamlet’s questions about death, mortality and suicide are answered by the play’s finish, his realization in the graveyard is enough to solve many of the incomplete thoughts in his troubled mind.
With his dying wish for Horatio to tell his story and for Fortinbras to be made King of Denmark, he is the last of the corrupted to die and the foreshadow that all will be right in Denmark sets in with his final lines. Works Cited: Altick, Richard D. “Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality. ” Shakespeare Quarterly 5. 2 (1954): 167-76. Www. jstor. org. Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. <http://www. jstor. org/stable/2866587>. Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington Square, 2002. Print.