Corruption is a growing theme in Hamlet, starting off relatively small and isolated, and then branching out into the lives of many important people in Elsinore. One evil act leads to many more unfortunate acts that, in the end, result in a overall negative outcome for everyone involved.

The act that begins the corruption is the murder of the old king Hamlet by his own brother-in-law, Claudius. Claudius kills the king so he may assume the throne for himself, and take his wife Gertrude for his own. This murder upsets the natural workings of the world, as man's closest link to God, the king, has been killed. Claudius becomes the new king of Denmark, through underhanded and wicked methods.

The natural order being upset, King Hamlet's ghost now wanders about Elsinore during the night. Upon hearing of the existence of his father's ghost through his friend Horatio, Hamlet becomes disturbed:

    My father's spirit---in arms? all is not well-- / I doubt some foul play; would the night were come! / Till then sit still, my soul: foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes. (I, ii, 254-257)
This describes Hamlet as being suspicious of his father's death, and the smell of corruption is thick in the air. The ghost corrupts young Hamlet by entrusting him with the task of killing Claudius to avenge his death. Angered by his uncle Claudius' killing of his own brother and the immediate marriage to his sister-in-law, Gertrude, Hamlet vows to kill him to right what has been wronged and let his father rest in peace. Hamlet feigns madness to make this job easier, which causes much havoc and confusion for the king, queen, and the magistrate Polonius.

Polonius suspects Hamlet's madness has something to do with his love for Ophelia. He and Claudius concoct a plan to spy on Hamlet's conversation with Ophelia. A group of travelling actors arrive at the castle, and Hamlet arranges to show a play that is very similar to the death of the old Hamlet to determine Claudius' guilt. Claudius and Hamlet sneak behind one another's backs in order to determine what the other is doing. Claudius grows afraid of Hamlet, and arranges for him to be sent to England. During a conversation with his mother, Hamlet believes his father is spying on him behind a curtain, and stabs into it. Polonius is killed instead, to Hamlet's dismay.

    A bloody deed; almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother. (III, iv, 27-8)
Hamlet adds unnecessary bloodshed into the equation. This leads to the corruption of two more characters, Ophelia and Laertes, the children of Polonius.

Claudius orders Hamlet's friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to take Hamlet to England with a message for him to be executed. Claudius has corrupted these two characters as well. Once good friends of Hamlet, they now willingly betray him and try to lead him to his death. However, Hamlet learns of the ploy, and turns the tables on the two. When they arrive in England, they instead are executed, Hamlet having sneakily used his late father's signet ring to create a new letter instructing their executions instead of his.

Following the death of her father, Ophelia goes mad. She dances about singing and giving out flowers. She is soon found dead in the river, believed to have killed herself. The corruption has lead to the death of yet another innocent, and inevitably, this death leads to many more. The death of both his father and his sister prompts the return of Laertes, who seeks vengeance and the death of Hamlet.

When Hamlet returns to Denmark, Claudius plots with Laertes to rid their lives of Hamlet once and for all. They plan to arrange a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, only Laertes' sword will be laced with poison to kill Hamlet.

    And for that purpose I'll anoint my sword. / I bought an unction of a mountebank, / So mortal, that but dip a knife in it, / Where it draws blood, no cataplasm so rare (IV, vii, 140-143)
This cunning ploy to 'accidentally' kill Hamlet causes the corruption to grow. In the end, the corruption will be the end of everyone.

Hamlet and Laertes duel, with Claudius and Gertrude watching. Claudius has gone behind even Laertes' back and ensured Hamlet's death by having Hamlet drink poisoned wine after scoring the first hit. Hamlet refuses the wine, however, and ignorant of Claudius' wicked plot, the queen drinks from the cup and dies. Hamlet and Laertes have wounded each other with the same poisonous sword. Laertes tells Hamlet of the king's involvement in Gertrude's death, and Hamlet stabs Claudius with the sword and forces him to drink from the poison cup. Claudius dies, and the old king is at last avenged. Hamlet and Laertes both are dying, and make peace with one another. They have both died by the same poison, as well as Gertrude. In the end, even their bodies have been corrupted.

    Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric; / I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery. (V, ii, 296-7)
Laertes realizes his own corruption, and that it is responsible for his death. The two die, the storm of corruption finally passed. Only Horatio is left to tell Fortinbras of Norway about the gruesome scene.

Corruption is like a weed that grows and spreads, choking out the other plants surrounding it. What started off as a greedy man killing his own brother to take his throne and wife eventually led to the death of himself, his queen, his nephew, his magistrate's family, and two loyal subjects. Hamlet is the story of how corruption can add up, and ruin the lives of all it touches, whether guilty or not.

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