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What is rotten in the state of Denmark?

To answer that question we first have to mention that it refers to one of William
Shakespeares plays: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. This famous line belongs, despite its wrong
association with Hamlet, to Marcellus, a member of the Kings guard who was present when the
ghost appeared. If we are to look at the denotative meaning of the word rotten we can find it in
any English dictionary: affected with rot; decomposing, decaying, or putrid. However, the
definition of the adjective and the context in which it is used make us realize that Marcellus is
referring to the socially, morally and politically corruption of Denmark. So we are, indeed,
talking of decay, disintegration, decomposition but in a metaphorical way and they are tied to
Denmarks society. This idea is also developed by Marjorie Garber who wrote that When we are
told that [s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark we do not think first of pollution
problems in Scandinavia, but rather of a generally corrupt society or situation, a pervasive
decay"(462). She also stresses upon the fact that passages like this one, which have a deep
meaning and a beautiful form defined by Shakespeares skillful way with words, became part of
the English culture and are used as an expression, a universal code for what they stand for. In this
case, rot became an English symbol for an unscrupulous, immoral and unprincipled world,
which underlines that this is Marcelluss perspective upon his country. Thus, in the paragraphs to
follow elements that demonstrate the high level of corruption and decay of the human being in
Hamlets country such as the presence of bad relationships, the infamous marriage, the killing of
the former king, Hamlets interior conflict will be dealt with along with the main existence of the

The unhealthy relationships that occur during the play are mostly parental relationships.
They demonstrate the moral degradation of the human model of the parent and they debunk the
ideal image of the family, which becomes dysfunctional. The moral qualities and the
responsibilities of the parent are forgotten and replaced by his own interests, passions or needs.
For Hamlet and his mother, even though they love each other and do no harm to the other, we
can still speak of an unhealthy relationship, giving the fact that her actions- marrying Claudius
and forgetting his father so easily and rapidly - bring him so much pain. He also seems to think
very little of his mother. He sees her as a depraved, weak and lustful person, flaws that he would
afterwards see in every woman. Therefore, he makes it his mission to convince her to lead a life
of chastity. When trying to get her on the right path, his fury gets so uncontrollably intense that
only the appearance of the Ghost makes him stop hurting his mother by disrespecting her.

According to Marjorie Garber who suggests that, for Hamlet, Gertrude and King
Claudius are bad actors faking their grief, Hamlet is both audience and critic. He sees the
performance of Claudius, and in effect he gives it a bad review. It is not convincing. One result
of this crucial perception, that all around him people are merely masquerading as mourners,
acting grief rather than feeling it, is to make Hamlet reject his own costume(474). Therefore,
she believes that, instead of feeling a part of the hypocrisy the new king and queen display so
ungracefully, the prince needs a new role that will differentiate him from the player queen and
the player king and thats when he decides to fake his madness which allows him to speak his
mind freely.

Another bad relationship is also the one between Polonius and his daughter, Ophelia. She
allows herself to be controlled by her father who is only interested in his position at court. She
was taught to avoid Hamlet, but then her father uses her to get into the graces of the king. His
stupidity and his arrogance get him killed, Ophelia mad and in the end she dies, too. He thinks he
knows what is happening with Hamlet and he doesnt stop until he will get his king proof that the
prince is madly in love with his daughter. In addition, Polonius feels the need to control his son,
too. The old man sends spies after his son in order to report to him what is his sons reputation.

The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are as well examples of failed ideals, but
this time the image of the friend is rotten. Accordingly, it is the way that they betray him by
being instruments for the king and trying to find out his intentions that make them depict de
decay of another interhuman relationship: friendship.

The marriage between King Claudius and his brothers wife, Gertrude should also be
mentioned. It is known that in Shakespeares time marrying the wife of your brother was
considered a form of incest. Marjorie Garber notes that If a man shall lie with his brother's wife,
it is an unclean thing, he has uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless (478).
This means that by marrying in such circumstances the lovers would upset God by disobeying
His life lessons. Knowing this, the morally absolute standards of the couple are questioned. The
royal family is setting a negative and unchristian example. Queen Gertrude is only presented in
the text through Hamlets eyes so the reason she married her brother in law is ambiguous.
However, Hamlet seems to think that his mother was seduced. Her involvement in the murder is
again vague. Therefore, it is not mentioned whether she knew about Claudius evil plans or
whether she was an accomplice. Nevertheless, Hamlets mothers behavior is undoubtedly
immoral and it influences Hamlets destiny.

The union between the two royals is in connection with Claudiuss murder of his brother.
It not only represents a wicked act of betrayal, but it is also an image of the whole country.
Shakespeare talks about the responsibility of the king who represents the head and the country is
his body. Therefore, the illness of the head triggers a cosmic disease and here the illness is seen
as usurpation caused by the kings ambition. Shakespeare differentiates between the invisible
crown and the visible crown, but also between the body politic and the personal body. The
invisible crown as well as the body politic stands for the moral values and the responsibilities
that a king should have, while the personal body and the visible crown represent his passions, his
personal life characterized by intimacy, respectively an object of power, on object that is desired
and envied. Marjorie Garber supports this idea by saying that Old Hamlet has been poisoned,
and the poison affects not only the King, but the state when the king is weak, so too is the
kingdom. When there is corruption at the top, the land and its people are likewise corrupted and
infected.(463). From her point of view, Hamlets madness has its origin in the madness of the
whole kingdom because the king is the image of his country. The deceitful King shows he is two
faced, unethical and deceitful through his ambiguous and equivocal language. That is why the
same author mentioned before asks whether it is possible that everything is right in a state where
the kings speech contradicts itself and hides a comic funeral and a tragic marriage(469).
Therefore The Denmark of this play is a place of inversion and perversion, and there is no
greater clue to that fact than the tenor and rhetoric of its language.(434).

Because the term rotten sends us to the idea of something affected with rot from within
we can understand the interior conflict that leads Hamlet to his death as another example of
metaphorical rottenness. The error of judgment that precipitates with his death is caused by his
thinking he is in control of his destiny or of other peoples destiny. When we talk about Hamlet
we should mention that there is also providence that determines his tragic end. He thinks that
Claudius needs to be brought to justice, and he is the one to do it. Hamlet sees himself as the
executor of providence because his mission was given to him by the Ghost of his father.
However, when he is saved by pirates, his perspective changes. He realizes that he is not an
instrument of providence because what he thought was his moral obligation is impossible to
accomplish within his own morally absolute standards. Marjorie Garber is the one that asks an
important question when talking about the main characters interior conflict, namely How can
we divide the world inside Hamlet's mind from that of the real world of Denmark? What is this
illusion, which comes to tell Hamlet what he already half knows? For what does it stand, and
why does it stir Hamlet to a feigned, creative madness, an antic dispositionto literally playing
the fool? (481).

The answer comes when interpreting the meaning of the ghost as something rotten as
well. First, we know that in Shakespeares period of time ghosts were seen, from a protestant
perspective of view, as an evil spirit who came to tempt the living to sin. However, it can also be
interpreted from a catholic perspective, namely that it was the image of a captured soul in
Purgatory. At first, even Hamlet doesnt know what to make of its presence, but after the play
that makes King Claudius display his guilt, Hamlet decides to trust the Ghost of his father.
Marjorie Garber gives an answer as well telling that the ghost can also be a kind of superego, a
conscience-prodder, inseparable from Hamlet himself. Thats why we can talk about a
parallelism between the mind of Hamlet and his rightfully kingdom. In either of the cases, the
presence of the Ghost occurs because of the immoral society of Denmark.

In conclusion, all the characters stand for a certain level of rotteness because they all
break a moral code. They all have a flaw which leads to their own destruction. For Hamlet is the
idea that he is in control, for Claudius is his ambition and his way of taking the power and with
his mother we talk about ignorance of his sons feeling and her responsability to be a model for
her people. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the failure of being a friend and for Polonius is
his wrong interpretation of being the perfect courtier. In addition, these actions trigger the
appearance of the Ghost who can be seen as a catalyst for the solution of exactly those actions
mentioned before, even though they end in a negative way: death. Thus, at the end of the play we
can talk about the resolving of the conflict situations and the ending of the rotten state once the
people are punished for their deeds.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. New York: Anchor Books, 2005

Electronic sources:

Emichael in Hubpages, The Role of Providence in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Hamlet's

Role in Providence, 6 feb. 2016