The somber images of poison and disease taint the pages of Hamlet, and shadow the corruption pervading the recent and future events of the castle. The poison with which Claudius kills King Hamlet spreads in a sense throughout the country, until “something is rotten in Denmark”, as Marcellus notes (I.4.90). Shakespeare shades in words of sickness continually during the play, perhaps serving best to illustrate the ill condition of affairs plaguing not only Denmark, but the characters as well.
Shakespeare immediately conveys the sense of cold and apathy in the opening scene. As the play opens in the cool, black night, Barnardo and Francisco are high atop the looming walls of Elsinore, keeping watch for the impending revenge of enemy Fortinbras (I.1). Midnight strikes and Barnardo notes, subtly referring to the sentiment of Denmark, that “tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart” (I.1.8). Since the beloved King Hamlet has died and the Queen remarried, the morale of the people is low, and cold.
The act continues, and the Ghost appears out of the dark shadows (I.1). Horatio, who had doubted the men’s earlier details of sightings, now contemplates the reasons for the Ghost’s visit as the spirit disappears into the ramparts. He tells the men of King Hamlet’s battles, and adds how the appearance of the Ghost reminds him of what he has read about the portents of Rome, just before the assassination of Julius Caesar. As “the graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeakthe moon was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse” (I.1.120). Horatio believes that the vision of the haunting Ghost is a forewarning to Denmark, just as the pale, sick moon was to Rome an image of the ill events to come. Even future events are drearily portrayed to the reader, a sense of the power of Fortune. This force was also referred to earlier, in Hamlet’s soliloquy of the “slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune”, going on to speak of being “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III.1.90), yet another image of disease.
Still in the opening scenes of the play, even men outside of the country can sense the rotting inside. Scornfully, Claudius says Fortinbras thinks “by our late dear brother’s death, our state to be disjoint and out of frame” (I.2.19-20), referring not only to the state’s political confusion, but its sick state of health as well. He continues, and notes that the dying king of Norway is “impotent and bedrid, and scarcely hears of his nephew’s Fortinbras purpose” (I.2.29-30) to attack Denmark. The universal illness besets all men regardless of their nationality; in particular, this idea of one not knowing about the hidden actions of another is reminiscent of the other plots in the play.
The newly crowned villain, Claudius, later remarks “Diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved, or not at all” (IV.3.8), directly before the scene of Hamlet revealing the location of Polonius’ dead body. Here, the evil king considers his plan to send the mentally ill Hamlet away to England, ridding himself of . Later in this scene, Claudius compares Hamlet to “the hectic in my bloodand thou must cure me” (IV.3.65), portraying the psychologically ailing prince as a personal sickness, a fever raging in his body.
Hamlet, later, in his first soliloquy, deplores of the world “things rank and gross in nature possess it merely” (I.2.136). After the death of his father, and quick “two monthsnay” remarriage of his mother, every aspect of the world seems to be diseased, and is an “unweeded garden that grows to seed” (I.2.136). In this outpouring of emotional distress and confusion, Hamlet wishes he could evaporate “into a dew”, and that God had not “fixed his canon against self-slaughter.” He further notes of the world as being “stale and flat”, further examples of the pale images Shakespeare conveys. Later, Hamlet adds how “some vicious mole of nature” (I.4.24) can destroy the reputation of a nation or individual. He concludes how a tiny amount of evil or sickness can drive out any good contained in something, as has been done to his family, and country.
In following scenes, Hamlet continues his usage of these feeble images. While making bitter jests at Polonius, he says, “For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion” (II.2.181-182), showing his view that even the life-giving sun can give life to disgusting disease. He follows later, after finding out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have come to see him under orders from Claudius and not friendship, that “this most excellent canopy, the airthis majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (II.2.299-303), obviously another morbid description of the current state of affairs.
Laertes also used words that contributed to the theme of disease. To Ophelia, warning of her relationship with Hamlet, he says, “The canker galls the infants of spring, too oft before their buttons be closed” (I.3.39-40). The “canker” is a worm, while “gall” is to break the skin; “Infants of spring” is a metaphor for the young spring flowers, with their unopened “buttons”, or buds. To Laertes, Ophelia is a young, innocent bud and the canker is her love of Hamlet; since he cannot marry her, he could only break her heart and leave her like the flower bud eaten by a worm. Worse, she could become intimate with Hamlet, thus ruining her reputation and the same worm that had hollowed her heart would have broken the surface, shaming her. The bleak images of rotting and sickness are quite clear in this scene.
A major turning point in the play, where again disease is shown, is the Ghost’s description of how he died. “Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, with juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, and in the porches of my ears did pour the leperous distillment” (I.5.61-64). He continues to describe how the poison Claudius poured in his ear caused his blood to “curd, like eager droppings into milk” and evoked “thin and loathsome crust all my smooth body”. Thus, the graphic sickness here was forced and murderous, and subtly reflected how the new king Claudius poisoned the “smooth body” of Denmark as well.
There are also scenes including Gertrude and images of disease. When speaking with Hamlet, he implies her sense is “apoplexed”, or paralyzed, after the recent tragic events in Denmark (III.4.74). She later dwells, “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), showing that her feelings of guilt make each bad turn of fortune seem even worse.
But who will clean up what is “rotten in Denmark?” Hamlet must be the one to accomplish this, but he is ill as well, contaminated with a sickness of thought. Though his madness is arguably feigned, this “antic disposition” reiterates Hamlet’s lack of resolution. Throughout the play, Hamlet has opportunities to rid Denmark of ills, such as striking the kneeling Claudius, but he hesitates constantly due to the sickness of his mind. Thus, Hamlet seems to have his own personal theme of irresolution, quite a contrast to Laertes quick and passionate decisions, who if he were Hamlet, would have “cut his throat in church” (IV.7.127).
The end of the play seems to culminate each character’s sickness into their downfall, with “purposes mistook, fall’n on th’ inventors heads” (V.2.385). The deadly poison Claudius prepared ends his own life, as it does to Gertrude and Laertes for their ill trust of the malicious king; the obvious mental disease of Ophelia leads to her demise. Hamlet, the indecisive tragic hero and one character who could have ended the disease plaguing Denmark, is unable to do so because he is afflicted with his own illness as well.