Decay in Hamlet
Decay is defined as “a gradual decline; deterioration,” disease as “any departure from health.” Both have multiple forms: physical, psychological, and social. Numerous examples of illness and deterioration can be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In this drama, Shakespeare uses imagery of decay and disease and the emotional and moral decay of his characters to enhance the atmosphere of the play and create a sense of impending doom. For example, in Act I, Laertes uses the analogy of plant disease to convince his sister Ophelia to preserve her virginity:
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of ...view middle of the document...
Likewise, Ophelia is totally changed within the course of the play. Initially she is a sweet, innocent, loving maiden, but Hamlet’s insanity and her father’s death so traumatize her that she becomes completely insane. She shows little grief outwardly, but she sings little sad songs of lost love and betrayal, and her seemingly senseless words convey her inner distress. Her ultimate suicide shows the extent of her despair.
Similarly, Hamlet becomes at least partially insane. Although the guise is initially assumed only to lead Claudius and others into false confidence, occasionally Hamlet is truly mad; in Act III he himself says, “My wit’s diseased.” (III, ii, 349-350). In Act IV, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to discover the location of Polonius’ body, Hamlet utters such riddles as “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body” (IV, ii, 27-28) and closes the scene with “Hide fox, and all after!” (IV, iii, 30-31), as if the whole situation were a silly game.
Finally, Hamlet’s relationships with many people fall apart. In Act II, when Hamlet first meets with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they tell raunchy jokes like good friends, and Hamlet speaks of their deep friendship. However, in Scene IV he accuses them of being “sponges” spying for Claudius, and by the time he reads the letters from Claudius to England, commanding his death, he has so little love for his former friends that he has them killed, even though they hardly deserved such a fate. Also, Hamlet’s love and respect for his mother, Queen Gertrude, shown in Act I during the scene with Claudius’ court, deteriorates completely, and by Act III he has nothing but disgust for her and abuses her terribly during the scene in her closet. Moreover, Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia collapses. Originally, Hamlet has enough love for Ophelia in Act III to sever their relationship prematurely in order to spare her pain; however, she foils his plans by breaking up with him first. Totally unprepared for this, he translates this hurt into hate and revulsion for her and all of the female sex, ordering her, “Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (III, i, 131-132).
In addition to emotional decay, several characters’ moral standards undergo deterioration. For example, Gertrude knowingly commits adultery by marrying her husband’s brother. Only after Hamlet’s questioning with her in Act III does she appear to feel guilt or remorse for what she has done. Furthermore, Claudius commits a plethora of sins. First he murders his brother and usurps his kingdom, and then he weds his sister-in-law. In Act III, he admits his guilt and tries to pray but is unable to put his heart into it,...