Disease and Poison
"'Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart" (1.1.9)
, says Francisco in the opening moments of the play. [Scene Summary]
The moon "Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse" (1.1.120)
, says Horatio, as he describes the conditions in Rome just before the murder of Julius Caesar. He believes that the appearance of the Ghost is a portent to Denmark, as the sick moon was a portent to Rome. [Scene Summary]
Scornfully, the King says that Fortinbras thinks "by our late dear brother's death / Our state to be disjoint and out of frame" (1.2.19-20).
By "our state" he means not only Denmark, but its state of health. A little later he explains that the King of Norway is "impotent and bed-rid" (1.2.29),
and so doesn't know that Fortinbras is about to attack Denmark. [Scene Summary]
In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says of the world, "things rank and gross in nature / Possess it" (1.2.136-137).
He feels that the whole world is diseased, that it is "an unweeded garden / That grows to seed." [Scene Summary]
"The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclosed" (1.3.39-40)
, says Laertes to his Ophelia, as he is warning her away from her relationship with Hamlet. The "canker" is a worm, and to "gall" is to break the skin. "Infants of the spring" is metaphorical for early spring flowers, and their "buttons" are their unopened buds. In Laertes' thinking, Ophelia is the young, innocent bud. The "canker" or worm is her love for Hamlet. Laertes believes that Hamlet, being of royal blood, cannot marry Ophelia, and so he can only break her heart. Then she would be like the flower bud which has been eaten by a canker, hollowing out her heart. Worse, she could go to bed with Hamlet and get pregnant, and so be publicly shamed. Then that same worm that had hollowed out her heart would have broken the surface, ruining her reputation. [Scene Summary]
(This image of a disease working its way from inside to outside will be repeated when the Ghost describes how Claudius' poison worked within his body.)
Hamlet speaks of how a single fault, "some vicious mole of nature" (1.4.24),
can destroy the reputation of a nation or an individual. The speech concludes with a statement that a tiny amount of evil can drive all the good out. [Scene Summary]
(In the next scene the Ghost will speak of how a drop of poison spread through his body and killed him.)
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.90),
says Marcellus after he has seen Hamlet follow the Ghost into the dark. [Scene Summary]
"Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, / With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, / And in the porches of my ears did pour / The leperous distilment (1.5.61-64).
This is the opening of the Ghost's description of how he died. The poison turned his blood into sour cottage cheese and his skin into a kind of disgusting pizza of scabs and sores. [Scene Summary]
"For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion" (2.2.181-182),
says Hamlet, in the midst of making a series of bitter jests at Polonius. Some editors read "good" for "god," but that doesn't make much difference to the general idea, which is that even the life-giving sun can give life to disgusting disease. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet says, "this most excellent canopy, the air . . . this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours" (2.2.299-303).
This is after Hamlet has discovered that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have come to see him because they were "sent for" by the King, not because they are his friends. He says he will explain how he feels, thus saving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the trouble of figuring it out. [Scene Summary]
"And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" (3.1.83-84),
says Hamlet toward the end of his "To be or not to be" soliloquy. He is pointing out to himself that once again thought has taken the place of action. [Scene Summary]
"But, woe is me, you are so sick of late" (3.2.163),
says the Player Queen to the Player King. His attitude toward his sickness is much more accepting than hers. [Scene Summary]
"Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected, / With Hecate's ban
[curse] thrice blasted, thrice infected . . . ." (3.2.257-258).
Thus Lucianus, the player villain, speaks to his vial of poison, just before he pours the poison in the Player King's ear. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet says of the King, "for me to put him to his purgation would perhaps plunge him into far more choler" (3.2.305-307).
After Hamlet has spooked the King with the performance of The Murder of Gonzago
, Guildenstern tells Hamlet that the King is "distemp'red . . . with choler." "Distemper" can mean "irritability," or it can mean "disease." Likewise, "choler" can mean either "anger" or the disease of biliousness (for which we now undergo gall-bladder surgery). So, in effect, Guildenstern tells Hamlet that he's made the King angry, and Hamlet replies that what the King really is, is sick. Furthermore, Hamlet adds, his cure for the King's sickness would make him sicker and angrier. [Scene Summary]
"'Tis now the very witching time of night, / When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world" (3.2.388-390),
Hamlet says to himself, before going to see his mother in her closet. For "contagion" we would say "contagious disease." [Scene Summary]
"O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven" (3.3.36),
says the King as he begins his effort to pray. Here the word "rank"
means "having a strong and offensive odor," and it strongly implies that the King is morally diseased. This implication is supported by the play's other uses of the word "rank." The word also means "growing excessively"; for example, weeds would be "rank" if they choked out a farmer's wheat. In the play's first use of the word, it has both meanings. Hamlet, in a state of deep depression, describes the world as "an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely" (1.2.134-136)
The second use of "rank" occurs in the performance of The Murder of Gonzago
, when Lucianus, the poisoner, talks to his poison as "Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected" (3.2.257).
Later in the play, during Hamlet's confrontation with his mother in her closet, "rank" is used in all of its meanings. Hamlet, in the fury of his rage against his mother, tells her that she is living "In the rank sweat of an enseamed
[greasy] bed, / Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty" (3.4.92-94).
Later in the same scene, Hamlet tells her mother that if she doesn't come clean, her guilt will be "rank corruption, mining all within" (3.4.148),
and so he advises her, "do not spread the compost on the weeds, / To make them ranker (3.4.151-152).
Thus the word "rank" carries much weight throughout the play, and we can understand the strength of the King's fear that he is offending the nostrils of heaven. [Scene Summary]
"This physic but prolongs thy sickly days" (3.3.96),
says Hamlet to the King, though not so the King can hear him. Hamlet has just put up his sword and decided to take his revenge when he is sure the King will go to hell. [Scene Summary]
What she has done "takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love / And sets a blister there" (3.4.42-44),
Hamlet tells his mother, in the closet scene. Moments later he tells her that the face of heaven is "thought-sick" (3.4.51)
at what she has done. [Scene Summary]
"It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen" (3.4.146-149),
Hamlet tells his mother, warning her against thinking that his accusations are only a result of his madness. Most of us are not familiar with the sort of "ulcerous place" that Hamlet has in mind. It's the kind of thing a drug addict might get from using a dirty needle. The infection under the skin eats away at the flesh, forming a pool of pus, and the skin above the pus gets crusty.
A little later Hamlet sarcastically asks forgiveness of his mother for trying to tell her some home truths, "For in the fatness of these pursy times / Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg" (3.4.153-154).
As you might guess, "pursy" means puffy or bloated. We might not consider a pursy person to be sick, but we could suspect that he would be a likely candidate for a heart attack. The meaning of "pursy" is echoed a few minutes later when Hamlet refers to Claudius as "the bloat king" (3.4.182),
and again expresses disgust at the fact that his mother goes to bed with her husband.
"We would not understand what was most fit; / But, like the owner of a foul disease, / To keep it from divulging, let it feed / Even on the pith of life" (4.1.20-23),
says the King about his handling of the problem presented by Hamlet. He means that because he loved Hamlet, he didn't want to admit that Hamlet was mad, and so he didn't do anything about the problem, thus letting it get worse. He's lying about his attitude toward Hamlet, but the metaphor he uses strongly echoes the one used by Hamlet in the previous scene, when he warned his mother that if she denied her own guilt, she would "but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen" (3.4.146-149).
In both cases we are given a picture of a hidden disease which gets worse because it is hidden. [Scene Summary]
Slander's "poison'd shot, may miss our name" (4.1.43),
says the King, hoping that he won't be blamed for Polonius' death. There's something missing in the original text, so the idea that he's talking about slander is a conjecture. [Scene Summary]
"Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots" (4.3.21-23),
says Hamlet, after telling the King that Polonius is at dinner "where
he is eaten." A little later, Hamlet tells the King that if Polonius is not found within a month, "you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby" (3.4.36-37),
thus making another reference to the idea of a rotting body. [Scene Summary]
"Do it, England; / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me" (4.3.65-67).
So says the King in a soliloquy at the end of the scene in which he sends Hamlet to England. "The hectic" is a high fever that won't quit, and the King wants England to execute Hamlet. [Scene Summary]
"This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies" (4.4.27-29),
says Hamlet of Fortinbras' attack on Poland for a worthless little piece of ground. An "imposthume" is an abscess, and so once again the disease or poison is imagined as working below the surface, unseen, until it becomes deadly. [Scene Summary]
"Sure, He that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and god-like reason / To fust in us unused" (4.4.36-39),
says Hamlet in his fourth soliloquy, as he again berates himself for not taking revenge on King Claudius. "Fust" means to grow moldy. [Scene Summary]
"O, this is the poison of deep grief" (4.5.75),
says the King of Ophelia's madness. In the same speech, the King complains about the people being "muddied, / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers" (4.5.81-82),
and refers to rumors about Polonius' death as "pestilent speeches" (4.5.91),
meaning that they will spread like the plague. [Scene Summary]
"But let him come; / It warms the very sickness in my heart, / That I shall live and tell him to his teeth, / 'Thus didst thou'" (4.7.54-57),
says Laertes of Hamlet's sudden return to Denmark.
Later in the scene, the King, meaning, "let's get down to business," says, "But, to the quick o' the ulcer:-- / Hamlet comes back (4.7.123-124).
To the King, Hamlet is indeed the "quick o' the ulcer," the living core of the sickness that gets under his skin. Still later in the scene, Laertes says that he has "bought an unction of a mountebank" (4.7.141),
which he will use to poison his sword and so be sure of killing Hamlet in their fencing match. [Scene Summary]
When the gravedigger gives him a lot of lip, Hamlet says, "the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe" (5.1.140-142).
A "kibe" is an itchy inflammation caused by exposure to moist cold. To "gall" is to rub or abrade. Thus Hamlet's metaphor shows the peasant's toe making the courtier's sore spot even more sore.
Later in the scene, when Hamlet asks how long a body will lie in the earth before it rot, the gravedigger replies, "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" (5.1.165-167).
A person--or corpse--is "pocky" when it is rotten with venereal disease. [Scene Summary]
Speaking of the King, Hamlet asks, "is't not to be damn'd, / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?" (5.2.68-70).
Here, a "canker" is a cancerous lesion, and "our nature" means our common human nature. Thus Hamlet sees the King as a kind of disease who will make other people worse and destroy our faith in human nature. [Scene Summary]
"But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart: but it is no matter" (5.2.212-213,
Hamlet suddenly says, just after agreeing to the fencing match with Laertes. He quickly passes off his second thoughts, but dies of poison in the fencing match. In the end, he turns the poison on its source, the King, stabbing him with the poisoned sword and forcing the poisoned drink down his throat. With his dying breath, Laertes says of the King, "He is justly served; / It is a poison temper'd by himself" (5.2.327-328)
, and Laertes admits that it is his own poison that is killing him. [Scene Summary]