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Imagery of Disease in Hamlet

In Hamlet Shakespeare weaves the dominant motif of disease into every scene to illustrate the corrupt state of Denmark and Hamlet's all-consuming pessimism. Images of ulcers, pleurisy, full body pustules, apoplexy, and madness parallel the sins of drunkenness, espionage, war, adultery, and murder, to reinforce the central idea that Denmark is dying. To Hamlet the very air he breathes is "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." Hamlet himself is a victim of a deep melancholy that results in fits of mania, and, until very late in the drama, he rots with a diseased will, unable to take the necessary action to revenge his father and save his country.

The following is a collection of passages in which we find such imagery. Please click on the scene for explanatory notes on each quotation.

Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed. (1.2.38-40)

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (1.4.90)

So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason. (1.4.24-29)

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body. (1.5.69-73)

For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion. (2.2.189)

the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament
this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. (2.2.290-294)

But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain! (2.2.550-552)

Make you a wholesome answer; my wit's diseased: but, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command. (2.3.314-315)

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. (3.1.84-85)

My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days. (3.3.98-99)

Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there. (3.4.40-44)

Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. (3.4.63-55)

Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex'd.

Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me. (4.3.64-66)

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end. (4.3.20-25)

To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss. (4.5.17-18)

Her brother is in secret come from France;
Feeds on his wonder, keeps himself in clouds,
And wants not buzzers to infect his ear
With pestilent speeches of his father's death. (4.5.73-76)

Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. (4.4.25-29)

For goodness, growing to a plurisy,
Dies in his own too much. (4.7.117-118)

But, to the quick o' the ulcer:--
Hamlet comes back. (4.7.124-125)

I' faith, if he be not rotten before he die--as we
have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce
hold the laying in--he will last you some eight year
or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year. (5.1.153-156)

and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (5.2.20-25)

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Imagery of Disease and Corruption in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 15 Jan. 2014. < >.


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Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries! (5.1.17-24)


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