Analyse how the idea of hope and/or despair was addressed in the text
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The death and despair which follows as a result of corruption can destroy the society where it has affected. In ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare addresses the idea of death and decay through numerous events that take place throughout the play. The corruption that starts with Old King Hamlet’s death was the cause for the once proud country of Denmark to crumble in despair.
The appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost at the beginning of the play was a key event that addresses the idea of death and decay. After the news of the King’s sudden death is announced, and Claudius is crowned King, a sense of despair spreads across the kingdom. The ghost of the old King wanders around the castle, as an omen of death. Marcellus states, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, when he and the other guards have been seeing this ghost roam the castle grounds. Shakespeare’s use of the word “rotten” to describe Denmark’s state after King Hamlet’s death indicates that corruption is afoot, and the presence of the Ghost shows the despair that the country is in. As the King was considered the closest to God in the Divine Right of Kings, Old Hamlet’s death is used to address the first step of Denmark into chaos and despair. The Ghost further adds to Shakespeare’s imagery of decay by describing his body as “most lazar-like” (like a leper). This portrays the poison that Claudius killed his brother with, as a disease that infected his entire body like leprosy. Shakespeare uses this metaphorical comparison to convey that the poison is a symbol of corruption, and the disease has infected the entire kingdom, leading to despair and death. It was this corruption that would infect Hamlet’s closest friends and family on his journey for revenge.
Another key event that addresses the idea of despair is Claudius’ confession. This pivotal scene in the play is where Claudius finally admits his sins to God and to the audience in a soliloquy. His first fine, “my offence is rank, it smells to heaven” addresses the idea of decay and despair that resulted due to his corruption, Shakespeare’s use of the words “rank” and “smells to heaven”, indicates to the audience that Claudius’ murder of his brother was untended to on Earth. His crime is rotting from being kept secret, yet the smell of corruption still reaches heaven. Throughout the confession, Claudius is in a state of despair due to the sinful action which he had committed, which he calls “the eldest primal curse”. As religion was a major part of Elizabethan England, the religious connotations relating to Claudius’ confession of his crime and the murder of Abel, would be used to invoke a response of despair in the audience watching. Towards the end of his confession, Claudius says, “bosom black as death”, where he describes his heart as black, alluding to the corruption and evil which has turned it black. By describing his heart as “black as death”, Shakespeare again addresses the death and despair which follows corruption. Claudius’ confession of his sins revealed to the audience the guilt which Claudius felt, however, his corruption still pushed him to hide the truth until his death.
The argument between Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude was another key event in which Shakespeare addresses the idea of despair in. Hamlet is overcome with anger with his mother’s remarriage to his uncle after the death of King Hamlet. He kills Polonius and continues to insult his mother for her “incestuous” actions against his honourable father. Hamlet describes Claudius as a “mildew’d ear blasting his wholesome brother”. The comparison of Claudius to a rotten ear of corn due to his corrupt nature who infects his brother portrays the decay of honour in Denmark. Shakespeare uses metaphors and symbols to describe corruption as an infection on a once “wholesome” society. It also describes the impact that an unsuitable successor has on a kingdom and the issue which was prevalent during the time which ‘Hamlet’ was written. The succession crisis of Queen Elizabeth, who had no children, created panic in England. Claudius, representing an unsuitable and corrupt successor, as a “mildew’d ear of corn” who infects a once powerful kingdom, addresses the audience with the idea of despair. Throughout the argument, Hamlet is disgusted by his mother and tells her to confess her sins, otherwise they “rank corruption… infects unseen.” Once more, Shakespeare uses the symbol of poison and disease to address the idea of despair as a result of corruption. Gertrude’s unwillingness to abide by Hamlet’s advice shows that she is infected by Claudius’ corruption.
The despair which resulted due to the corruption which has infected Denmark in ‘Hamlet’ was an important idea which Shakespeare addressed throughout numerous events in the play. The death’s of those infected in the final scene was a telling message from Shakespeare about the tragedy and despair that follows the corruption of society.