Corruption is usually seen as a dishonest and immoral use of power for personal gain. Found in a variety of forms, corruption is presented by different authors and exhibited by various characters. The central premise of William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, clearly shows how corruption negatively affects the lives of people who are closest to it. It can be easily seen in the play as it unfolds, scene by scene, and can be witnessed even at the end of the play where the corruption of the characters reaches a devastating climax. Shakespeare deliberately creates a complex network of opposing ideals and immoral acts to represent the corruption that is rooted in the greed and selfishness of man, manipulation by higher powers, and the tragedy and consequences that ultimately follows.
The characters presented by Shakespeare in the play Hamlet demonstrate that power is not the source of corruption, but the greed for power and selfish desire is. The most substantial example comes into play is through Claudius, who kills his own brother for the greed of the kingdom and its queen. Throughout the play, Claudius is presents as a morally weak character who values sustaining power and material things over those around him. The man is willing to remain in power by any means necessary. Following the production of the play, which was staged by Hamlet to observe Claudius’s reactions, Claudius’s greed presents itself clearly to the audience. Claudius realizes that Hamlet somehow knows that he is responsible for the death of the former king of Denmark and goes to the chapel to pray. Afraid of the consequences of his actions, Claudius cries out to himself and wonders if it is possible for him to be forgiven for his sins. Due to his refusal to renounce the benefits of his sins, Claudius states, ‘“Forgive me my foul murder”/That cannot be, since I am still possessed/ Of those effects for which I did the murder:/ My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.’ Even though ambition is stated as a secondary motive, there is little difference from the first reward he mentions. His quest for the crown stems from his ambition to be king and so he was therefore willing to kill his own brother to hasten his meager claim to the throne. Claudius uses the word “foul” which is a recurring motif throughout the play. This motif creates an impression of disgust that closely correlates with the ongoing theme of disease and decay. By using the word, Claudius acknowledges the festering disgrace his corrupt acts have caused him, but he still refuses to part with the rewards in order to atone for his acts. Further proof of his desire for the throne, and its overpowering control over any potential moral standard he held, is found in the last scene of the play. Claudius uses a very minimal effort to save Gertrude at the play’s end. Before she drinks the poisoned wine, Claudius simply gives her a warning, saying, ‘Gertrude, do not drink’ . He takes no other action to try and stop her from drinking from the poisoned glass. Claudius chooses to avoid exposing what he’s done in order to preserve his throne, rather than protecting the woman he claimed to love. This shows that, though he may have loved her, Claudius values his status and power far more than the woman that came with it. Therefore, he allows his thirst for power to corrupt his sense of morality.
Likewise, the agreement Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s two former friends, make to provide covert intelligence to King Claudius demonstrates their corrupt sense of greed. In the hopes of gaining power and favor from the royal court and its king, they choose to sacrifice their friendship with Hamlet. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, instead of serving as friends of Hamlet’s, the two manipulate the request of the King and claim it is an order. The two traitors do whatever the monarch asks of them, trying to present it as though they have no choice, as evident when Rosencrantz says, “Might, by the sovereign power into command/That entreaty”. Though Rosencrantz does not actually say it, he doubtlessly implies that he and his friend will do the King’s bidding. This lack of questioning of the morality of anything Claudius tells them to do, from spying on their friend Hamlet to arranging for Hamlet’s murder, indicates their own moral ineptitude and the corruption of their thoughts. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose greed and aspiration for a higher political position corrupts their thoughts, Gertrude marriage to Claudius, the brother of her deceased husband, so shortly after the King of Denmark’s death is an act of moral transgression. Though the marriage may not be considered an act of greed, Gertrude’s haste in marrying the new King so shortly after the death of the old is entirely selfish. Her need for love and affection caused her to act selfishly, without any apparent thought or care about the impact of her actions on her son. This is highly immoral because she forgoes the fact that, as a parent, she is morally accountable to provide for the welfare of her son. Various references to her corrupt judgment are made over the course of the play. Hamlet continuously references Gertrude’s hasty marriage to Claudius and considers Gertrude to have had base motivations for this decision. Implying that Gertrude had forsaken her duty to mourn her first husband to instead wed his morally lax and promiscuous brother, Hamlet states, ‘But two months dead-nay, not so much, not two./ So excellent a king, that was to this/ Hyperion to a satyr,’ . The implication of this statement brands Gertrude as a shallow woman who thinks only about her body and external pleasures. External pleasures include the role of power Gertrude had as queen. The selfish desire she exhibits to remain loved and in power sheds light on her immoral choice in marrying the new king. When held accountable, Gertrude’s behaviour presents through as morally corrupt and greedy selfish. Therefore, through Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Gertrude, Shakespeare highlights the immorality and corruption present in the greed of man.
Characters in Hamlet are subjected to overexploitation and manipulation at the hands of corrupt higher powers. A perfect example of such manipulation stems from the patriarchal relationship between Ophelia and her family. The manipulation Ophelia faces is due to her gender and the control and manipulative advantage it gives her father, the predominant male figure in her family. In an effort to preserve his respected position in court, Polonius tries to manipulate his daughter, in the form of education, by criticising Ophelia and her gender. In response to Ophelia’s confusion about the loving gestures Hamlet showers her with, Polonius patronizingly says, “I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby”. Based on her previous actions, it is clear that, though young, Ophelia is a grown woman old enough to make her own choices about her love life, but Polonius acts as though he must speak to her as he would a child. This implication attacks Ophelia’s mentality and comprehension directly and most likely makes her feel inferior, which presents the manipulative way her father is trying to control her. In making Ophelia feel inferior, Polonius’s comment reinforces the theme of misogyny. Using his position as her father, Polonius asserts his male superiority, expecting Ophelia to listen to him simply because she must. This is further complicated when Polonius continues on to say, “you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,/ Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly, /Or – not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, /Running it thus – you’ll tender me a fool”. Ophelia’s earlier use the word tender had referred to love filled actions and emotions like those in the letters from Hamlet about his feelings. By contrast, the use of the word tender here implies an exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius basically tells Ophelia that, due to the fact that she is young and naive, Hamlet would be able to manipulate her with sweet words and convince her to give up her standard as a woman. In warning her about the potential manipulation she might face at the hands of her lover, Polonius manipulates her to do his bidding. He concludes by saying that, in allowing herself to be swayed by affectionate gestures, Ophelia would humiliate him in court. This is also a form of manipulation because he exploits her love for him to coerce her to listen. Polonius’s fear of public humiliation is the ultimate root cause of his corruption and he therefore manipulates his daughter in the hopes to avoid it. Similar to Polonius’s corrupt use of his paternal link and power over Ophelia, the ghost manipulates Hamlet into doing his bidding. Even before the ghost speaks he already manipulates the people of Denmark. When it appears before the guards, but does not speak to them, the ghost eventually leads them to inform Hamlet about his presence. Once face to face with his son, the ghost speaks and, while doing so, uses several methods to manipulate Hamlet into completing his request for vengeance. Beginning with the words ‘I am thy father’s spirit’ , the Ghost recreates a link between Hamlet and the memory of the father he has lost. This invokes sympathy from Hamlet, erasing any possible skepticism he may have had. The use of the Ghost’s past connection to Hamlet is presented as a powerful method to sway him to do as he was bid. The former King of Denmark also employs the use of fear and sympathy to convince Hamlet to seek revenge. The ghost begins with the general frightening notions about the afterlife the people of the time would fear. He drones on and on about the hellish nightmare he has had to endure in purgatory, claiming that unveiling the secrets of his stay “Would harrow up [Hamlet’s] soul; freeze up [Hamlet’s] blood”.
In order to raise the sympathy already rooted in Hamlet, the ghost creates an image of the mortifying experiences of hell, implying the horror would be too much for Hamlet to sanely comprehend. Throughout the exchange, the ghost presents Hamlet with disturbingly detailed descriptions about the hellish nightmare that he endured which strengths the ongoing theme of death and the afterlife in the play. Hamlet’s contemplates the physically of death and its most intimate complications in many of his soliloquies and constantly reverts to the thought that he does not know what to expect afterwards. The ghost’s grueling depiction death may partly be the cause of that. The ghost then goes on to make several negative statements about Claudius’s seduction of Gertrude and his incomparably low regard of the new king. This feeds right into Hamlet’s already tainted image of the incestuous marriage of his mother to Claudius along with his previously expressed displeasure about the Claudius himself. Hamlet, prior to the confrontation, held no true desire to harm Claudius. Due to the ghost’s manipulations, Hamlet sets to kill the king in a blind act of revenge. The ghost seems to want Hamlet to have, at the forefront of his mind, the thoughts of the father he lost and the reason he lost him, in order to unbalance Hamlet’s moral standard. In a sense, the ghost uses his paternal link to Hamlet in order to manipulate and direct a revenge plot he can not carry out himself. Thus, the ghost present a corrupt motive and ends up using Hamlet for his own private gain. In addition to Polonius and the ghost, Shakespeare’s primary antagonist in the play uses manipulation to attain his own desired outcomes. King Claudius uses deliberately manipulates Laertes into directing all of his anger and rage towards Hamlet. After the death of his father, Laertes is extremely vulnerable. By convincing Laertes that Hamlet is responsible for the death of his father, King Caludius takes advantage of Laertes’s fragile state of mind and manipulates him into targeting Hamlet for revenge, thus eliminating Claudius’s adversary as well. Claudius starts by challenging Laertes’s loyalty to his father, Polonius, stating, “Laertes, was your father dear to you?/ Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, As face without heart?”. By stating this, Claudius implies that Laertes did not respect or value his father’s life. He concludes that if Laertes were loyal to his father, he would seek to honor him through action. By stating this, Claudius also hints that the reason Laertes has not yet done so was because he had no honor. This preys on Laertes sense of moral duty and justice, which therefore causes him to agree to Claudius’s plan of revenge on Hamlet. Once Laertes finally commits to take vengeance on his father’s killer, Claudius continues to provide Laertes with justification for the otherwise immoral act, which only lead to Laertes his assertion “To cut his throat i’ the church”. Claudius seizes control over Laertes’s sorrow and anger to his own corrupt purposes, which proves that he has successfully taken advantage of Laertes. Claudius uses manipulation to use people’s loyalty for his own gain. Shakespeare therefore, by demonstrating the manipulation endured by Ophelia, Hamlet, and Laertes, provides the audience with insight on the effect of heeding a corrupt higher power’s influence.
The corruption displayed in Hamlet influences conflict in the play, causing tragic deaths and madness. In his attempt to satisfy the ghost’s demand for revenge, Hamlet rapidly descends into madness which leads to his ultimate death. As a result of the ghost’s manipulation, Hamlet finds himself unable to avoid this dreadful fate, as the culmination of his many mistakes results in his constantly increasing corruption. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet’s mind is intact, although he is mourning the death of his father. In meeting his father’s ghost, though, Hamlet is subjected to corruption that ultimately ruins him. The ghost demands that Hamlet takes action against the new monarch, saying, “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not. / Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” . By commanding Hamlet to kill Claudius as revenge for Claudius’s crimes against Hamlet’s family, the ghost plants the seed of active violence in Hamlet’s mind. This idea, composed of revenge and aggression, festers in Hamlet’s mind and starts the chain of events that destroys him. Polonius’s death was an unnecessary casualty in Hamlet’s wake. Prior to this, Hamlet makes it clear to Horatio and Marcellus that he is “to put such an antic disposition on”, but in doing so, Hamlet adopts the role he tried playing as fact and goes truly mad.
Taking his state of mind into account, the act of stabbing through the curtain at the unknown spy was largely based off impulse while confronting his mother. Hamlet clearly no longer controls himself. He follows the gruesome murder with the question “is it the King?”, presumably hoping that he may have just taken his revenge by accident, thus ending his torment. The murder of Polonius should have been a cause of concern for Hamlet, yet he treats the matter with relative mirth, addressing Polonius’s corpse by saying, “thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!/ I took thee for better. Take thy fortune” . With this harsh speech Hamlet shows a surprising lack of remorse and respect, and proves his progression beyond the reach of reason due to the conquest set to him by the ghost. Not only does he kill Polonius, Hamlet kills Laertes as well in the duel that follows as a result. Consequently, the duel is also the cause of Hamlet’s own death. Through Hamlet, it is obvious that corruption only leads to miserable results as is obvious by his madness and eventual death. The killing of Polonius, though the result of Hamlet’s madness, is the cause of Ophelia’s severe mental decline to insanity which leads to her death as well. Being neglected and exploited, Ophelia’s madness seems to be inevitable. At first, Ophelia faithfully plays the role of a modest lover and her father’s naive daughter. During this phase, Ophelia is dominated by Polonius’s crooked manipulations and will. Despite her wish to respond to Hamlet’s affections, Ophelia chooses to obey her father’s command and refuse Hamlet’s courting. Despite the fact that Ophelia may sometimes disagree with him, she obeys her father anyway because Polonius is the crucial figure in her life. Without him, Ophelia is forced to confront the cruel world all by herself. Furthermore, the faith Ophelia put in her father becomes meaningless because of his death, therefore making her decision of commitment to her family meaningless. Ophelia uses the imagery of flowers to convey this sense of sorrow. When brought before Gertrude and Claudius, she says, “‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end’’. Ophelia’s mention of violets is used to represent the faith she had in her father. Though she was manipulated, Ophelia still feels the paternal bond she shared with her dad. Ophelia uses the image of withered violets, stating that she might have been able to stay faithful to something she believed in, but now she has nothing to be faithful to now that her father has died. Hamlet, mad with vengeance, leaves her and takes away the only other supporting figure she had. It was her father who influenced Ophelia to break up with Hamlet even though she did not want to, and now that her father is dead, she cannot gain his approval nor does she believe Hamlet will ever love her again, since she is the one who left Hamlet. Clearly, this turn of events overwhelms Ophelia and leaves her distraught. On the one hand, Polonius’ death frees Ophelia from his manipulation. Meanwhile, the freedom presents comes with the price that Ophelia is left completely alone. No instructions or guidance from this point on. Her subsequent death was just a means to an end. By allowing the water to consume her, take control of her life for once, and frees herself from the corruption of the mortal world.
Aside from the downfall of specific characters, Shakespeare uses the overall tragedy of the play to display the devastating effect of corruption. After Hamlet leaves to converse with the ghost, Marcellus tells Horatio that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.In the one line, Marcellus both explains and foreshadows the political situation in Denmark. The recurring motif of disease, rot, and decay is used to represent corruption. With Claudius’s acceptance of the throne, his greedy ambition, lack of experience, and unrestrained, celebratory tendencies destroy the success and prosperity that Denmark held when King Hamlet was in control. In the act of killing his brother, Claudius starts a chain reaction that leads to the death of various characters and the eventual loss of the Dannish kingdom.