The Garden of Eden

The Genesis account

My Eden by Hans Doller, available through Creative CommonsAccording to Genesis (the first book of the Bible), when God created humans he placed them in the Garden of Eden, sometimes known as ‘Paradise'. In this garden was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The first two humans, Adam and Eve, were told by God that they could eat anything in the garden except the fruit of this tree (which, according to one later tradition, was an apple tree).

Eve, the first woman, was tempted by a serpent (traditionally held to be the devil in the shape of a snake) who spoke to her, telling her that if they ate the fruit she and Adam would ‘be as gods, knowing good and evil' (Genesis 3:5). This was a lie, but the serpent induced Eve to eat. She and Adam were then for the first time aware of shame, and instead of being innocently naked they tried to make themselves clothes out of fig leaves.

Because of the story of Adam and Eve:

More on attitudes to poison: Since serpents commonly kill by poisoning their prey with venom — the name specifically given to snake-poison — and since poison can be administered in secret (as opposed to a face-to-face confrontation with an enemy) in literature poison is frequently associated with particularly vile and underhand murders.

Eden in Hamlet

In Hamlet both the garden and the snake are recurrent images. By using them, Old Hamlet is seen as a good man (in spite of his sins — see Imagery and symbolism: The Fall and original sin) — who is the victim of a viciously deceptive murderer, Claudius. This murder is especially abhorrent because Claudius is Old Hamlet's brother (see Imagery and symbolism: Cain and Abel).

  • When the Ghost first tells Hamlet about his murder in Act I scene v, he uses images of Eden:
‘'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me — so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus'd — but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.'
  • Because of the sin and corruption at the court, Hamlet feels that the ‘garden' of the world has become choked with weeds (which according to Genesis 3:18 can be seen as a result of humankind's corruption) See Weeds, chaff, briar, thorn.
  • He focuses on his mother's ‘o'er-hasty marriage' (before he even knows of his father's murder):
‘Fie on't ! O fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.'
  • Confronting Gertrude in Act III scene iv he picks up the same image, warning her:
    ‘Do not spread the compost on the weeds /To make them ranker.'
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