Death and Decay: two words that give the image of something rotting, smelling foul and going to waste. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, these two words symbolize the majority of the storyline and the entirety of the action occurring in the play. Whether the focus is on the death of the majority of the characters, or the decay that comes along with those deaths as well as the decay of “the state of Denmark” (1.4, 100), the theme is reoccurring. Because death and decay are so prevalent throughout Hamlet, it could be said that Shakespeare intended for them to be a major theme.
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Decay, a decomposition of an idea, object or body is a major attribute to the Ghosts soliloquy spoken to Hamlet. The hebona poison is a deadly component that in itself leads to the decay of a body. This soliloquy is filled with words relating to decay; some could say Shakespeare’s point was to give the audience this image. An example of how the Ghost mentions decay is when he speaks of the “leprous distilment” (1.5. 71), and “a most instant tetter barked about, /most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crustâ€¦” (78-80). In itself, the idea of a leprous distilment gives the disgusting idea of something infectious and corrupting. When he speaks of the “tetter [that] bark[s] about, [which is] lazar-like..” he is referring to a scab that looks like a leprous skin disease, melting away and disintegrating at his skin, or causing his skin to scab and deteriorate. The theme of death and decay is very obvious in the Ghosts soliloquy, and illustrates the image of decease and rot in its most important context. The passing of King Hamlet is a strong influence on the play itself.
Throughout the play, death and decay is brought up several times. Since this theme drives the play through, it is important of Shakespeare to allude to it several times so that the play maintains a sort of solemn feeling. Many characters throughout the play use murder or suicide as a solution to their problems, and the decay that follows this death is often mentioned. A valid example of this theme is illustrated when Hamlet and the King are speaking of the location of Polonius after Hamlet has killed him. Hamlet tells the King he is “not where he eats, but where he is eaten.” (4.3, 22). This sentence in itself exemplifies decay: it illustrates the idea of a dead body being eaten as it rots, and Hamlet hints to the King that his body “is not where he eats,” (perhaps some sort of dining hall), “but where he is eaten,” (where his body is being devoured.) As he continues, he speaks of a “convocation of politic worms,” or the Diet of Worms called upon by the city of Worms. Although Hamlet could be saying this in a literal way, in another sense a Diet of Worms illustrates that a person feeds off of worms, that they are on a worm diet. He later speaks of the idea that after a King dies worms will feed from his flesh and then that same worm will be used as bait to fish with. After this, the fish will have eaten the worm and a poor beggar will eat that fish, meaning he has also fed on the worm inside the fish. Because of this, the peasant now has the Kings flesh in his body, forming somewhat of a full circle. What Hamlet has said relates to the theme of death and decay because not only must a body be dead in order for it to perish, but worms and maggots aid in the process of rotting as well as feed off from it.
What is being suggested by Hamlets conversation with the King about worms and maggots and the location of Polonius and his dead body suggests and shows many similar and different ideas with the Ghosts soliloquy. One parallel among them is that the Ghost of King Hamlets body is telling Hamlet to seek revenge on his death, which in turn will result in the death of another person, this being Claudius. The idea that one death will lead to another, whom caused the death of the first person relates to the full circle aspect of what Hamlet said to Claudius. In both situations, one event is caused by another, which causes another, and so on and so forth. Also, a very obvious similarity is that in each situation death occurs, and because of this death there is decay. A difference between the two is that there are different reasons for the killings in both situations, King Hamlet is killed for Claudius’ benefit and Polonius is killed either by accident or because of madness. This is showing that although death causes various events, the events that occur depend highly on the reasoning for the killing.
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The theme of death and decay in Hamlet ties the entirety of the play together. Not only does the play start off with the death of King Hamlet, but because of this the whole play is filled with thoughts and actions of suicide, murder and death. Shakespeare uses the images of death and decay regularly throughout the play in many different ways, and each passing of a character relates to another death before it. Decay is used in many ways throughout Hamlet, whether it be the decay of Denmark, the decay of moral or emotions, but the majority of it relating to the decay of a dead body. Because the decay of a body is not possible unless the body is deceased, once a character dies in the play rotting or the eating of flesh is usually mentioned thereafter. Without death and decay occurring, there would be no Hamlet, since every other theme and idea from the play directs to the two.
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