Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

Images of Disease in Hamlet – Jamie Tuohy

Took 20 mins out of exam study to make some quick notes for all you Leaving Certers worried about the tricky question of ‘disease in Hamlet’:
  • There are a considerable number of images of sickness and disease in Hamlet describing the unwholesome condition of Denmark morally.
  • This image of the Danish court dominates the play.
  • Associated with this are images of poison and decay.
  • All these related images form a powerful, imaginative pattern, contributing to the mood and atmosphere of the play and reinforce its central themes.
  • The Ghost’s description of Old Hamlet’s murder is presented in language associated with disease (poison).
  • The murder is not enacted but we are very aware of the distasteful nature of the crime. The poison used by Claudius is a ‘leprous distillment’ which causes disease, and a ‘vile and loathesome crust’ of scabs to cover the body of its victim.
  • The corruption of Denmark and its people is seen as insidious poisoning.
  • Marcellus says “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”. 
  • Poisoning is not just something described by the Ghost and featured in the imagery – it recurs in the Dumb-Show and is the means by which all the major characters die/
  • The imagery of corruption, sickness and decay, is often a reflection of Hamlet’s darker moods, as for example, in his first soliloquy, with its emphasis on the ‘sullied flesh’ and on the world as an ‘unweeded garden’ infested with all things ‘rank and ‘gross’.
  • He regards his mother’s sin as a ‘blister’ on the ‘fair forehead of an innocent love’. 
  • He sees Claudius as a ‘mildewed ear’ – blasting his ‘wholesome brother’.
  • He tells Gertrude that if she refuses to face up to her guilt, she will be like somebody trying to find a cure for an ulcer and by covering it with useless ointment, while “rank corruption mining all within/infects unseen”.
  • He compares the war between Norway and Poland to a kind of tumour, which grows out of too much wealth and he thinks of his decision to spare the life of a praying Claudius and his mother’s part i it, as the ultimate sources of the poison and rottenness which threaten the well-being of Denmark.
  • On the other hand, Claudius thinks that Hamlet is the source of Denmark’s decay.
  • After the death of Polonius, he compares his lateness in having Hamlet locked up, to “a foul disease”, who permits it to undermine his life. “Diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved or not at all”.
  • He says to Laertes of Hamlet’s return “but to the quick of the ulcer/Hamlet comes back”.
  • As well as emphasising the imaginative effect of imagery of sickness, disease and poisoning, we should include other influences which help to counterbalance the sense of decay and corruption induced by the reflections of Claudius and Hamlet.
  • The atmosphere of the play is not entirely one of gloom an ugliness.
  • Hamlet is a rich and varied play, encompassing many moods and many contrasting strands of imagery.
  • Against the morbid atmosphere evoked by numerous reference to rottenness and corruption, exists the lyrical beauty of Hamlet’s description of the morning dressed in a russet mantle, Marcellus’ splendid lines on Christmas tide, the associations of grandeur and magnificence called up by Hamlet’s ample classical imagery and Gertrude’s delicate and elegiacal account of Ophelia’s death. 


Good Luck,



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