Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark
This is a very famous line in English literature which came from the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. While most people know that it was born from such play, only a few know that it was actually spoken by Marcellus (a guard; a minor character) and not Hamlet himself. It was during one of his conversations with his fellow guard, Horatio, when he actually said it. Relatively, considered as the greatest and most tragic ever written by the utmost English writer in literature, Hamlet’s story revolves around the ideas of decay and corruption, both physically and psychologically. The quote, which is the center of this essay, was actually taken from Act 1, Scene 4 of the play where Marcellus and Horatio were commanded by Hamlet to not follow him as he would want to follow the ghost by himself. However, due to a heavy weight of worrying and love for service, Marcellus and Horatio followed him anyway.
But what does this phrase really mean? Why is it considered by most scholars to be one of the most symbolic lines in the history of Shakespearian plays? What does “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” really stand for?
If you are a Shakespearian enthusiast, you would probably know that Shakespeare is very fond of writing plays which talk about politics, corruption, and issues in the government. Most people remember him as the guy who writes the loveliest love stories, but little do they know that this guy is actually a fan of criticizing the flaws and shortcomings of the State to its people and to the country itself. Therefore, when we say that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” we actually mean that there is something wrong or there is the presence of an inappropriate occurrence and turn of events in the body of the State (Denmark) and the people who run it.
As previously stated, the line was said during the first part of the play when Hamlet ordered the two guards to not follow him because he wanted to follow the ghost of his father by himself. In the story, the ghost tells Hamlet that he was killed by King Claudius (the current ruler of Denmark) by means of poisoning him. This could be the “something rotten” that is being referred to by Marcellus. He could have said it because he knew, or felt rather, that there is something wrong with the current state of Denmark, and the death of the father of Hamlet could have been the start of this “something rotten.” Furthermore, experts say that this could also have been the reason why Marcellus insisted on Horatio that they should follow Hamlet.
Indeed, there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, as shown in the whole play. There were a lot of inappropriate actions exhibited by many of the characters. One example is when Queen Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) married King Claudius. While a lot of people objected to such, it would be considered immoral and incestuous, Claudius still went on marrying Gertrude stating that he did it for it is in the best interest of the country. Suspiciously, Queen Gertrude agreed on marrying him and the wedding took place after only two months subsequent to the King’s death. With that, Hamlet felt lonely and extremely upset and disappointed especially when he realized that his mother, the Queen, seemed to have moved on in a span of two months. On top of that, she did not even mourn for his (Hamlet) father’s death and she refused on considering the idea that he could have died because of a foul play.
Another example would be the death of the king itself which was the main cause of action in the play. People of Denmark were unaware of the true reason why the King died – poisoned by the juice of cursed hebona. Apparently, the juice was poured into his ear by Claudius, which went through into every inch and curve of his body, and made him ultimately defenseless; hence, leading toward his death. If we are going to look at it, the poison was not just used as a means to pursue the King’s death but also as a symbol to mark the death of entire Denmark. Just like how the poison infected the King, Claudius, as the poison himself, infested the whole of Denmark with his dark ruling.
This rottenness was also exhibited in the roaming of the ghost of the King in the hallways and walls of the palace. The presence of a ghost is a bad sign itself. To some degree, it basically gives rise to the idea that something wrong happened or is about to happen. When Hamlet spoke to the ghost, indeed, it was discovered that something wrong already happened and this thing is still happening. With that, rottenness, even its simplest form was revealed in the play.
Evidently, the whole play is about corruption and deceit of the ruling class of Denmark. Thus, when Marcellus said that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, he was referring to the “state” and not Denmark itself. The state, which is interchangeably used with the word government refers to the ruling class and not the country. In its literal sense, we should know that Marcellus was referring to King Claudius as the “rotten” thing that is happening to Denmark, and his acts which were inappropriate and suspicious even from the very beginning.
Literally and figuratively, the “rotten” in the line was used to symbolize Claudius. It may also refer to other characters such as Queen Gertrude, but the main point of comparison is Claudius. Relatively, Claudius symbolizes corruption, trickery, and deception. Thus, “rotten” could be directly related to such wrongdoings. The disturbing turn of events is the effect of this rottenness which led Denmark, particularly its ruling class, to devastation and chaos.
With all these facts, Hamlet is undoubtedly the most tragic and heart-breaking play of William Shakespeare. Certainly, it deserves its popularity in the history of literature. It symbolizes not just the venality in Denmark during those times, but also the deceitfulness and decay that could happen in every state if the presence of a Claudius would be at the core of their ruling class. In the modern world, it symbolizes the corruption and greediness that could spread and overpower even the wholeness of the country if the presence of a Claudius and the likes of him would be at the center of their politics and state affairs.