Summary: the Theme of Corruption in the Hamlet Play

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Stories detailing murder and betrayal have entertained countless people for centuries. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, even four hundred years later, is still enjoyed as a demonstration of the nuances of a family and kingdom in disorder. The tale follows Hamlet as he navigates life after his father’s death, which he learns was actually a murder committed by Hamlet’s uncle. In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the motif of poison develops the theme of corruption by creating the main plot conflicts and characterizing King Claudius as someone with a poisoned mind.

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Poison underlies both the initial conflict that incites Hamlet’s fury and the final climax of the play. Initially, the ghost of Hamlet’s father acknowledges that “‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me”. However, he says that in truth, his own brother “in the porches of my ears did pour the leperous distilment”. The sudden realization that Claudius poisoned King Hamlet causes the prince to vow revenge against his corrupt uncle. Eventually, this desperate yearning for retribution transforms into violence, and both parties resort to dangerous methods of solving their perceived problem. Ultimately, the climax of the play is a direct result of the poisoning of King Hamlet. King Claudius devises a sinister plan, involving a poisoned sword and drink, to kill Prince Hamlet during his duel with Laertes. Unintentionally killed at the hand of her husband, Queen Gertrude says, “The drink, the drink! I am poisoned”. Soon after her death, Hamlet discovers that he is dying and wounds the king, exclaiming, “The point envenomed too? Then, venom, to thy work”. The use of poison at the finale is ironic because it is the same murder tool used against King Hamlet. Furthermore, the sinister connotations of “poison” are enhanced by the knowledge that these murders occur at the hands of corrupt, vengeful family members. Hence, poison is a “weapon” used as the premise of the play, appearing at both the inception of the plot and the climax.

Claudius’s personal corruption is revealed when the audience learns of the murder he committed, but his character is further developed as he tricks those around him. Claudius first deceives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into turning on their friend by asking them “To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather so much as from occasion you may glean”. Unbeknownst to the two men, the new king turns their friendship with Hamlet into a means to undermine him and to learn his secrets. Thus, their minds are figuratively “poisoned” by King Hamlet’s murderer. Moreover, King Claudius also employs Laertes to kill Hamlet, ensuring that the guilt and his nephew’s blood are not on his hands. He encourages Laertes to seek retaliation against Prince Hamlet, and they agree to dip the sword in a poison so potent that “if I gall him slightly, it may be death”. Instead of acting on his desire to attack Hamlet himself, King Claudius coerces other people to carry out the deed. He wants to hide the corruption of his throne and family using a toxin that Hamlet cannot see. Therefore, throughout the play, Claudius’s poisonous character is exposed as he corrupts his family and acquaintances.

The overarching theme of corruption is reinforced by the use of poison to create key conflicts in the plot and to display King Claudius’s manipulation of others. Although the mention of venom warns against taking the lives of others, an underlying message of the play is to be conscientious of one’s treatment of others. In one’s struggles to reach an objective, other people can be hurt on the journey. Additionally, Hamlet illustrates that corruption can lie underneath the surface within families, kingdoms, and friendships.

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