Death, Sickness, and Decay in Hamlet
Decay is defined as "a gradual decline; deterioration," disease as "any departure from health." Both have many forms: physical, psychological, social, etc. Multiple examples of illness and deterioration can be found in the tragedy Hamlet. In this drama, Shakespeare uses imagery of decay and disease and the emotional and moral decay of his characters to enhance the atmosphere of the play.
The drama Hamlet abounds with images of decay and disease. Celestial bodies are described in this manner; in Act I Horatio says that the moon "Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse," and in Act III, Hamlet says that the moon is "thoughtsick" at his mother's sin. Abstract ideas such as wealth and peace are also associated with such imagery by Hamlet in Act IV: "This is th'imposthume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies." In addition, in Act I Laertes uses an example from plant lore to convince his sister Ophelia to preserve her virginity:
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Furthermore, in Act I the ghost uses words associated with disease to describe his poisoning and death:
The leperous distillment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about
Most lazarlike with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
Furthermore, a similar portrayal of the poisoning is given during the players' performance in Act III:
Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property
On wholesome life usurps immediately.
Most of all, Hamlet's description in Act IV of Polonius' corpse eaten by worms is a disgusting passage:
Not where he eats, but where 'a 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 are but variable service -- two dishes, but one
table. That's the end.
References to sickness and rottenness are made throughout the play, but decay is perceivable in other ways as well.
The characters in Hamlet decay emotionally throughout the play. For example, at the beginning of the drama Queen Gertrude is happy, but her conversation with Hamlet in Act III, his apparent insanity, and his vague hints about her sin torment her until in Act IV she moans miserably,
To my sick soul (as sin's true nature is)