AP Literature and Composition
Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Decay and Corruption
An incidental comment from a minor character lays down, in the opening moments of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the theme which is to pin together all its aspects. Corruption is accelerated with the image of decay. Hamlet comes to the conclusion that the world is decaying by his description of it; humanity is the catalyst of developing the ultimate sin of human decay and corruption.
We are constantly reminded of the pervading atmosphere of decay through the imagery used in the play. It is a significant point that the ghost, the only character that could arguably be termed an outside observer, and who is certainly qualified to make some form of prophetic judgement, should be one of the prime sources of imagery of decay, poison and rotting.
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment . . .
. . . doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
the thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine.
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body [Act I, Sc. v, 66 - 78]
Throughout the play we can trace a progression of corruption, that leads to death, through 'disease' in the characters of Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet.
Polonius is the most obviously corrupt character in Hamlet. His corruption has occurred long before the play begins; the progression is in the extent to which it is revealed to us. From this courteous, almost comically long-winded member of the court, emerges a personality that is first dominating (as he instructs Laertes: 'These few precepts in thy memory/ Look thou character.' [Act I, Sc. iii, 63]), clearly abusive towards Ophelia:
You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance,
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?. ....