Harold Blume said it best when he said, “Hamlet is deaths ambassador to us.” Throughout Hamlet, we have the images of death, decay, rottenness, and corruption pressed upon us. The imagery corresponds with the plot of the play perfectly, all culminating with the gravedigger scene. The corruption images illuminate the actions of the people in Claudius’ court, beginning with Claudius’ own actions.
The beginning of the play lets us know that it is winter with Fransisco’s statement that it is “bitter cold” (1.1.6) This may be an allusion to death in itself – things are dead in winter. The guards speak of the ghost and we know right away that we have a supernatural theme, as well as a theme of death. In act 1 scene 2 we get the impression that King Hamlet has been gone for a while. Gertrude is already re-married and is happily out of mourning clothes. Gertrude even tells Hamlet, who is in full black mourning clothes, to cheer up.
Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know”st ”tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
Hamlet does not feel that it is time for him to shed his wretchedness just yet. The impression given is that it has been a long time scince the death of the old king and only Hamlet still clings to his memories and grief. After everyone leaves, however, we find out all the sordid details about the new King and Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet begins the rottenness imagery right away when he compares the world to “an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature posses it merely.” (1.2.135-6) He is utterly despondent and blames his mother and uncle for not feeling the way he does. He is the one who points out that the old King, his father, has not been dead long at all – only a month in fact. He rails over the fact that his mother could be so fickle, marrying again so soon. The affront is ground even more sharply into his frail sensibilities when she marries his father’s brother, his uncle. The fact that the two of them could be so jolly so soon after the death of his father just staggers him. He predicts that such haste “cannot come to good. But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (1.2.158-9)
Hamlet is further thrown into gloom when he is told that his father’s ghost has been spotted. He suspects that the only reason that his father would appear would be to warn him of a foul deed.
My father”s spirit in arms! All is not well;
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come.
Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o”erwhelm them, to men”s eyes.
Marcellus reinforces the idea with his comment that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (1.4.67) This alludes to a plot or some such, that has been perpetrated against King Hamlet. Hamlet and the guards realize now that there must be some terrible deed that has kept the King from rest, something that needs to be revenged. Hamlet finds out just what happened to his father in the next scene. The King’s ghost keeps the rotten imagery going with his remarks about garbage, leprous distilment, and curdy milk.
The death imagery continues in act 3 scene 1 with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ”tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
He debates whether or not it would be easier to just die than to fight against all his troubles. Is it really worth the grief he is going through, or would it be easier to just take his life. He sees how his mother and Claudius are conducting themselves and he is disheartened by Ophelia’s supposed rejection of him. He does not want to live in so rotten a world. He has come from school where he was taught to think thing out and use ideas. Everything is thought about in ideals where he comes form and now he has been thrust into the vipers’ nest with little experience to guide him and his grief to contend with.
Polonius begins the plotting and deceit against Hamlet when he asks his man Reynaldo to find out as much as he can about Hamlet. He does this supposedly to cover his own butt, by not affronting the king and queen with his daughter presumptuousness. He does not want them to think he has pushed his daughter to make a good match with Hamlet, not taking into consideration Hamlets feelings about the subject. Hamlet is a learned man who sees the world with fresh discerning eyes. He sees purity and faith in Ophelia and does not think about her rank in comparison to his. He is only concerned with his love and the happiness that they both share. When Polonius sticks his nose into it:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:
So by my former lecture and advice,
Shall you my son.
He corrupts the whole thing. If he had just left them alone then Hamlet would not have been so upset at Ophelia in act 3 scene 1. He believes that she is actively involved in all the spying and plotting that has been going on and is so disillusioned at this point that the truly does not care. “God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” He cruelly taunts her about being an inconstant woman, thinking that she has betrayed him.
After first losing Hamlet’s love through obeying and trusting her father, Ophelia then loses her father due to his own plotting and deceits against the man she still to a point loves. She was an unwilling participant in her fathers’ plots, and trusted him when he told her he knew best. Ophelia’s whole world is shattered when he is killed. She completely cracks and retreats into herself. She refuses to acknowledge any rottenness or corruption and shields herself from it with her inane childish chatter. She still knows what happened on some level of her consciousness, however, because she tells her brother; “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” (4.3.180-1) In the footnote of the Oxford edition text, they tell us that violets represent faithfulness. Ophelia is saying that she had given all of her faith to her father and on the day that he died, her faith was taken from her.
Hamlet turns all of this corruption and decay into a big joke after he kills Polonius. When asked where he has hidden Polonius, Hamlet quips; “At supper.” (4.3.18)
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain
convocation of politic worms are e”en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table.
That”s the end.
He is explaining the cosmic joke to people who do not understand it. We raise animals to feed us, but what we are truly doing is fatting ourselves for the worms feast. Claudius does not get the joke because he sees himself as so much more important than that. He simply thinks that hamlet is insane.
HAMLETA man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
KING CLAUDIUSWhat dost you mean by this?
HAMLETNothing but to show you how a king may go
progress through the guts of a beggar.
Claudius does not want to hear this at all, and persists in interrogating Hamlet about Polonius body. Hamlet insists on jabbing him one more time before finally telling him where the body is.
In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger
find him not there, seek him i” th’ other place
yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
this month, you shall nose him as you go up the
stairs into the lobby.
Hamlet uses the same sort of analogy in the graveyard scene. This scene is meant to be humorous and the references to death are true references and not just imagery.
Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn”d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
Hamlet is coming to terms with his own mortality and realizing the true physical destiny. He finds irony in the fact that a king could become a meal for a peasant, a seal for a beer-barrel, or a patch to keep wind out of a dwelling.
Hamlet shows us that life is to be viewed without prejudice. It does no good to go about life with only your own interests in mind. He saw the rottenness and corruption that comes of that and it broke him. He loved his father and to see him so maligned was heartbreaking, especially coming from those who should have loved him most. That revelation shattered Hamlets ideal view of the world.