Corruption and disease

The physical mirrors the spiritual

The spiritual corruption at the court of Denmark is underlined for us throughout the play by images of physical corruption and disease — in particular, the recurring image of an ulcer, hidden beneath the skin, which secretly poisons the body (see Imagery and symbolism: The Garden of Eden for images of the snake and its venom):

  • When speaking to his mother in Act III scene iv, Hamlet warns her not to assume that his criticism of her stems from madness; this supposition would allow her to ignore her sin:
‘It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen.'
  • Hamlet uses the same image about the potential deaths of soldiers which a country will allow in order to contest a ‘little patch of ground'. He feels this is a corruption in the state, a spiritual abscess or ‘imposthume' arising from ‘too much wealth and peace'
  • Ironically, since Claudius is himself the disease from which the country is suffering he (in Act IV scene i) sees Hamlet as an illness with which he should have dealt:
‘But like the owner of a foul disease,
To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of life'
  • In Act IV scene iii Claudius again sees Hamlet as a disease attacking him:

    ‘Like the hectic in my blood he rages.'
  • The idea of a ‘foul disease' suggests leprosy, and this gives added meaning to the reaction in Old Hamlet's body to the poison poured into it, as he recounts in Act I scene v:
‘And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.'
  • Claudius, with his poisonous evil, has infected the body politic, just as the poison he pours in the ear infects his brother. Claudius hopes ‘to keep it from divulging' by pretending to be virtuous — part of the theme of false appearances (see Themes and significant ideas: False appearances).
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