In Macbeth, the theme of greed and corruption is largely concerned with an individual’s internal conflicts. This theme is explored in an expanded way in Hamlet –here the greed and corruption also affect other people. The only untainted characters are those who actively resist the influence of corruption. To this end, Horatio stands as the antithesis of Claudius, and it is to his model that Hamlet attempts to equal. Hamlet’s procrastination in killing Claudius can be viewed favourably as his unwillingness to be corrupted just to achieve an end, something many other characters feels perfectly willing to do, but it is a weakness nevertheless, because without him actively fighting corruption, it gains control over the whole of Denmark, as indeed is what happened.
In Hamlet, the power of corruption is very strong — people good and bad can all become involved. Even Claudius, the most corrupted character in the play, is not entirely black. In fact, he has many traits of an intelligent, effective leader — decisive, sympathetic, and possesses some moral values, in that he repents what he did, while Old Hamlet seems to be just a brute soldier. Perhaps it is exactly because he knows himself to be capable that he should feel the more ambitious. However, no matter how Claudius may have been a good king, he is not armed with legitimacy, and thus he has no right to the throne. When Claudius decides to usurp the crown, he has sinned by upsetting the natural order of the world, a sin aggravated further by the ‘foul and most unnatural murder’ he committed. In this, Claudius has, by the time of the meeting between the ghost and Hamlet, not yet been punished. The ghost’s concerns are realistic and relevant—the good of the whole of Denmark is threatened by the appeal of corruption as an apparently easy way of satisfying one’s desires. In this way, Claudius has ‘the whole of Denmark…Rankly abused’. Thus Hamlet’s revenge takes on an importance far out-powering that which is to avenge his father’s murder — it is to prevent Denmark from rotting from top to bottom.
Hamlet not only witnesses ‘ the rottenness of Denmark’ through the low reputation of Danes in foreign countries, where they are called ‘ drunkards’ by a ‘swinish phrase’, but he feels the corruption to be part of himself, and wished that his ‘sullied flesh would melt.’ Hamlet is then very concerned about upholding honesty and morality. A major part of his delay comes from his wish to be sure that the killing of Claudius is morally correct, since the ghost may in fact be a ‘damned ghost’ tempting him to corruption. In this, Hamlet spends a good half of the play passively allowing Claudius’ influence to grow unhindered. But even after Claudius’ guilt is proven, Hamlet still seems hesitant to kill him, which suggests that Hamlet is in fact unconsciously unwilling to commit a murder, certainly not in the same callous way as Laertes would, who is willing to kill ‘i’the church’. Hamlet is also conscious to show his moral purity to others, and this is why he wants Horatio to live, in order to ‘tell my[his] story’. He mentions the need for the people to know that he does not want to kill Claudius because he wants to be king, and he tells his mother he chides her because he has to ‘be cruel to be kind’.
The audience’s sympathy for Hamlet arises solely, then, from the fact that Hamlet could resist getting tainted by all the mud around him. After all, Hamlet has many flaws — being ‘passion’s slave’, indecisive, jealous to some extent. Hamlet himself acknowledges Horatio’s superiority, praising him for his common sense, justice, consistency, coolness. Indeed, when compared with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio’s ‘antique Roman’ like loyalty is extraordinarily laudable. Yet the Hamlet figure is pivotal in the play, for although Horatio is possibly a better example of human perfection, Horatio has no power whatsoever to fight corruption.
Unbefitting his important role, Hamlet does not do enough to prevent corruption and greed spreading to other people, only making sure himself is clean, and this slowness in action has some serious consequences for Denmark. Like dominoes, one character after another fall into the trap of corruption. Polonius, always a shrewd, scheming man, collaborates with the king in shamelessly sacrificing Ophelia as their bait to dig out the secret of Hamlet. His corrupt cynicism regarding Hamlet’s love for Ophelia leads to their estrangement, and ultimately Ophelia’s death. While he does meet a deserved end when he is carrying out yet another corrupt deed — secretly listening to the conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet, his spirit lives on — particularly in Laertes, who seems to share a good part of his father’s view, also disapproving of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship. Later on, Laertes, encouraged by the king, does not hesitate to use underhand methods to kill Hamlet.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern start out as intimate school friends of Hamlet, and are greeted by Hamlet cordially with ‘My excellent good friends… Good lads how do ye both?’ Nevertheless, they happily become faithful agents of Claudius, and ‘make love’ to their mission to kill Hamlet. This idea of the rapid infection of Denmark by corruption is also reinforced by the extended metaphor of the weed. Not only does Hamlet say to his mother not to ‘spread compost on the weeds To make them ranker’, but it is also very significant that Ophelia dies with ‘her weedy trophies’, a portrayal of her as a victim of the corruption in the world.
In the end, while Hamlet succeeds in killing Claudius, Denmark is not any better than it started out to be. Although Fortinbras has Hamlet’s ‘dying voice’, it is questionable why Denmark would like to have a foreign prince as its ruler, who was formerly it s mortal enemy, and seems insatiable in his search for land and power, even greedy enough to waste many lives to gain ‘a patch of ground that hath in it nothing but the name’.
Although corruption is very deceptively attractive and is embraced by many characters, it brings true happiness neither to those who submit to it nor those who do not. In a corrupted world, everybody lives a state of uncertainty and fear, for nobody can trust anybody else, nor oneself. Gertrude admits that ‘So full of artless jealousy[mistrust] is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt’, and Claudius can only rely on his ‘Switzers’ for his personal safety and realise in horror that his offence ‘smells to heaven’ and he will ‘never to heaven go’. The unsoiled people are affected equally, for either they are powerless to defend themselves against evil, such that Hamlet could easily have been killed by Claudius, or they will have to take up evil to counter evil. When Hamlet fails to distinguish deception from truth, he makes faulty judgment about the constancy of Ophelia, which must have contributed to her madness.
The tragedy of Hamlet is not about Hamlet, or indeed the tragic flaw of any character, it is a tragedy of the entire human race, which is generally unable to resist greed and corruption when it provides immediate gains. When the growth of corruption is not stemmed, it has disastrous consequences on individuals and the society as a whole, as the state of Denmark at the end of Hamlet shows. Often it is only the minority of the people who has the faith to uphold virtue, yet often they are either politically powerless or do not have the determination to fight with corruption continually, and Hamlet is certainly too scholarly to take the heavy burden of preserving virtue in a dark world. In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare is warning us of the dangers to be a Claudius or to be a Hamlet, for we bear the responsibility to leave an uncorrupted world to future generations.
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