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The phrase
`Something is rotten in the state of Denmark` is attributed to Marcellus, in
the context of the appearance of old Hamlet’s ghost in the first act of the
play. The meaningful line refers to the political and social realities of
Denmark, rathen than to some object that is rotten per se. However, throughout
the text, the reader is struck by the fact that there are few things, if any,
which are not rotten in the state of
Denmark. Therefore, I believe the saying ought to be discussed in the following

In Act 1, scene 1,
the ghost of the late king shows itself to Marcellus and Horatio. Considering
certain religious beliefs, ghosts are the souls of people who had not clinched their
deals with this world, thus they lurk on earth to avenge for their death. This
aspect illustrates the fact that  the
ghost itself could be considered rotten – after all, old Hamlet has been
murdered by his own brother, Claudius. This reality constitutes the first
element of rottenness in Denmark – fratricide, as it is told by the ghost
itself: ’tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard,/A serpent stung
me. So the whole ear of Denmark/Is by a forged process of my death/Rankly
abused. But know, thou noble youth,/The serpent that did sting thy father’s
life/ Now wears his crown.’  (Hamlet, act1.
scene 5. 35-40)

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Still, Claudius did
not poison old Hamlet out of madness. Envy and greed appear to be the most
sensible reasons for his conduct. By killing his own brother so as to usurp
him, marry his wife, and reign over Denmark, Claudius seems a rotten character
in himself.  Not only does he kill his
brother, but he also convinces Gertrude of Hamlet’s madness and of the threat
that he is for everyone at Elsinore. Later on, he will conspire with Laertes to
kill Hamlet by poisoning him, as well: `And that he calls for drink, I’ll have
prepared him/A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,/If he by chance
escape your venom’d stuck/Our purpose may hold there.` (Hamlet, act 4, scene

It is a striking
fact that the young Hamlet was named after the late king. Perhaps their name
influences their destiny according to the Latin saying `nomen est omen`.
Another peculiar resemblace between the father and son is their death. Both the
old and the young Hamlet have the same fate, that of being poisoned by
Claudius. Poison could be considered a lait motif, because not only the two
Hamlets die because of it, but also Gertrude, the queen, Claudius, who himself
planned Hamlet’s murder, and, ultimately, Laertes. According to Marjorie Garber,
poison itself is the one rotten element that leads to the doom of so many
characters of the play: `’Poison-
the something rotten in the state of Denmark’.
Garber, 2004, p.489).

Another facet of decay in Denmark is the incestuous
marriage of Gertrude and Claudius. Not only is this aspect striking because the
queen re-marries so soon after her husband’s burial, but also because she
marries her brother-in-law, Claudius. This marriage is incestuous, therefore
immoral, and it will contribute to Hamlet’s supposed madness and desire to kill
Claudius, so as to restore the balance at Elsinore : ‘twentieth-century criticism
concerned with the “incest motif” in Hamlet, and influenced by Freud, often
singles out the relationship between Hamlet and his mother. But in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Claudius’ easy phrase “our sometime
sister, now our queen” would have been at least as provocative, and at least as
potentially disturbing.’ (Marjorie Garber, 2004, p.482)

Apart from this, ruthlessness is an important part
of the rottenness that Denmark has become. Characters mentioned in the play, as
well as courtiers, are marked by this feature. Hamlet himself admits to being
cruel, but in comparison to others, such as Claudius, he is the least ruthless
of them. Based on his ruthlessness, greed and cold-bloodedness, Claudius is the
real villain in this play. Killing his brother, seducing his wife and being
made king of Denmark, all these point to his monstrosity.  Hamlet wishes to cause the king’s remorse by
creating a play that supposedly shows the murder of old Hamlet, the scene of
Claudius’ poisoning. Hamlet is well-intentioned in his trial of awakening in
Claudius humane feelings such as honesty, regret and remorse. Young Hamlet’s
ultimate wish is that his step-father would confess his deeds: `i’ll have these players/Play something
like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle: i’ll observe his looks/i’ll
tent him to the quick: if he but blench,/I know my course. The spirit that I
have seen/ may be the devil and the devil hath power/to assume a pleasing
shape: yea, and perhaps/out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very
potent with such spirits,/abuses me to damn me: i’ ll have grounds/more
relative than this: the play’s the thing/wherein i’ll catch the conscience of
the king.’ (hamlet, scene… act..).

Another character
that is ruthless is the queen of Denmark. She marries her brother-in-law too
soon after her husband’s demise. Her cruelty comes from the fact that earthly
things, such as power and wealth, are above the transcendental thing that love
is. Supposedly, she marries Claudius just so she could still be the queen of
Denmark, so she could keep her wealth and royal power. This supposition could
be defended by her refusal to keep wearing mourning attire.(clothes). She even
judges Hamlet for his choice of dressing in all-black, as the custom goes.  ‘again it is useful to imagine the
stage as a visual spectacle, glittering with jewels, torches, and liveried
attendants. In the center, the King and Queen, splendid in silks and furs;
Claudius bejeweled and be ringed, his head crowned, the very emblem of
conspicuous consumption. And to the side, Hamlet, a mute spectator of all this
magnificence, startling in black from head to toe. “good Hamlet, cast thy
nightly colour off”(Hamlet, act 2.scene 1.68) 
(Marjorie Garber, 2004, p.477).

Immorality is yet another rotten thing at the royal
court of Denmark. Hamlet is among the few characters that live accordingly to
moral values and principles, which is why he is believed to have gone mad. He
despises his mother because she is incestuous, he despises his uncle because he
knows he is the murderer of his father and also because he knows just how
rotten and ruthless Claudius is. Hamlet seems to be mad only because certain
characters believe him to be, solely because his existence is dissimilar to
their twisted way of life. In corrupt societies, the people who are not
`rotten` and therefore believe in moral, social, political justice, are seen as
`lunatics`, an adjective Claudius himself attributes Hamlet. (CAUTA IN TEXT).
Hamlet’s extremely lucid and coherent soliloquies prove his sanity. (ADD

as it is portrayed through the tragedy’s characters, is a decaying society,
where murder, envy, pride, fratricide, adultery, immorality, and cruelty
co-exist, eventually leading to the demise of the royal family. The image of
such a country can be traced even nowadays, which makes the play still relevant
and meaningful. The line `something is rotten in the state of Denmark` was not
meant to be interpreted literally, but on a spiritual, metatextual level; the
rottenness of the spirit, of the society is what the playwright intended to
highlight: ‘when
we are told that “something 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’. (Marjorie Garber,
2004, p. 467).

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