Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
This activity assesses your ability to rephrase and explain one of the main themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: political decay.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
This quote is probably one of the most famous in all of Hamlet; however, it is useful to remember that Marcellus says it rather than Hamlet himself. The quote doesn’t come from a member of the nobility, it comes from a rather ordinary guardsman, commenting on the suspicious behavior of his Prince, a man first in line to the throne of his country:
Horatio: He waxes desperate with imagination.
Marcellus: Let’s follow. ‘Tis not fit thus to obey him.
Horatio: Have after. To what issue will this come?
Marcellus: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Horatio: Heaven will direct it.
Marcellus: Nay, let’s follow him. [Exeunt.]
Hamlet Act 1, scene 4, 87–91
Taking the ordinary citizen of Hamlet’s Denmark as your audience, craft an in-depth news analysis on the country’s current political state. This assignment is based on your close reading of the play’s first two acts and your practice of summary in the discussion board. Similar to the longer investigative pieces found in news magazines such as Time or Newsweek, you should examine the question of whether something really is “rotten” in the state of Denmark and, if so, what? While remaining objective, your goal is to inform your readers of the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, and “why” of the current government and military situation of Denmark. Assume that your readers are relatively informed, but ordinary citizens of Hamlet’s Denmark.
Draw upon the political situation as presented in the play for your evidence: the recent victory over Old Fortinbras, the threat posed by his son, and the uneasy state of the monarchy. You can also use the characters in the play as your sources, quoting the words of King Claudius, Hamlet, and the Queen (for example) as further evidence for your interpretation.
Be sure to check your work and correct any spelling or grammatical errors.
In this module, we turn from writing about short stories and poetry to writing about drama. This is a natural evolution as the ancient Greeks defined drama as a form of poetry. Later, the Roman writer Horace explained that drama was designed to either delight (comedy) or instruct (tragedy). For the next three modules, we will be reading the Shakespearean drama, Hamlet.
Although Hamlet has its moments of comic relief, it’s structure and resolution is one of tragedy. Hamlet is one of the four major Shakespearean tragedies, joining King Lear, Othello and Macbeth. All of these plays have the following elements in common:
• One central figure or protagonist – although these protagonists have their strengths, they also usually possess at least one critical flaw.
• Element of disappointed hope or frustrated ambition.
• Death of the protagonist as a means of emphasizing disappointment and defeat (as opposed to suffering).
As you read through Hamlet, you will glimpse these elements through the evolution of Hamlet’s character, his efforts to determine the truth of his father’s death, and his own murder. Knowing the play’s conclusion and Hamlet’s fate doesn’t make reading the play any less of an adventure. Each act unfolds with its own complications, conflicts, and questions.
We will read Acts I and II this week, Act III the second week, and conclude our study of Hamlet with Acts IV and V. For each week
• Module Notes: Hamlet: Acts I and II
There are numerous print and online editions of Shakespeare available.
1. The Folger Shakespeare is an excellent choice.
2. If you are interested in the most scholarly edition, choose the Arden Shakespeare series.
3. If you want to read Hamlet online, I would recommend the version at Shakespeare’s Words Web site because it gives both line numbers and definitions of words not commonly used in modern English.
You can also access Hamlet for free online at any one of the sites listed below:
4. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (mit.edu)
5. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (opensourceshakespeare.org)
Regardless of the version you choose, I strongly recommend that you use a version with line numbers. These will be very helpful when citing your quotations in your papers.
View the following:
• The Simpsons – Hamlet Parody [Video File] [05 min 24 sec]
• Sesame Street: Patrick Stewart Soliloquy on B [Video File] [01 min 26 sec]
Submit the following:
• M6A1: Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark
This mini lecture helps you identify some of the themes and questions present in the first two acts of Hamlet. There are over 421 question marks in the Folger Edition of Hamlet. In fact, the play begins with Barnardo’s question, “who’s there?” The word “question” appears fifteen times in the script.
The pivotal question of Act I is the identity and nature of the ghost that appears to Barnardo, Marcellus, Horatio and, subsequently, to Hamlet. This question ties into the theme of advice that spirals throughout both Act I and Act II. From old King Hamlet’s ghost, to King Claudius, to Polonius, to Laertes, characters either give advice or openly tell others how to behave. Whether that advice could be trusted or followed, and how we make that determination, is at the heart of these first acts.
Reading Acts I and II also plunges you whole-heartedly into Shakespeare’s language. The notes for this module link to information on iambic pentameter and dictionaries that will help you to interpret some unfamiliar terms. The Discussions and written Assignment are designed to give you further practice interpreting the language of Hamlet.
Chances are that Hamlet is not new to you. You might have read the play in high school. You might have even performed parts of Hamlet. If you haven’t done either of these, you have most likely come across Hamlet in popular culture.
Searching “Hamlet Parodies” on YouTube brings up well over 300 entries. Most of them are dreck, but one stands out as being quite good. It’s from the Simpsons [Video File] [05 min 24 sec], naturally, and well worth five minutes of your time.
These days, even young children are exposed to Hamlet. As evidence, please check out this fun video from Sesame Street of Patrick Stewart adapting the “To Be or Not To Be” [Video File] [01 min 26 sec] soliloquy so that it applies to an actual “B.”
One of the best lines in this video is where Patrick Steward opines, “if beeth is even a word.” It’s a wonderful shout-out to the six year olds (and the rest of us) who are wondering the same thing. The following resources will be helpful to you in working with Shakespeare’s language and in addressing the assignments associated with this module:
• The Shakespeare Resource Center provides a searchable archive of words with definitions. Because the glossary is limited, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the site’s quick tutorial on Shakespeare’s grammar.
• Another very valuable glossary has been compiled by the Shakespeare’s Words website. It can be found at Shakespeare’s Words Glossary. After selecting the first letter or the word or term that you would like to look up from the menu on the top, you can click on that word from the index that appears down the left-hand side of the page. I strongly recommend that you use this resource when reading and working with the first two acts of Hamlet.
Finally, you probably want to think about iambic pentameter. Knowing about iambic pentameter, will be another asset to you as you read the play and translate it for your class assignments.
Hamlet reads like a long poem because it is written in iambic pentameter – a natural question at this point in time might be, what does “iambic pentameter” mean?
• An iamb is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one
• Penta means five, indicating that there are five iambs per line
• Meter refers to a regular rhythmic pattern
Putting all of this together allows us to understand the definition of iambic pentameter as a rhythmic pattern consisting of five iambs per line. The cadence of iambic pentameter should be familiar to you as it is the most common rhythm in the English language. Iambic pentameter actually sounds like five heartbeats:
ba-Dum, ba-Dum, ba-Dum, ba-Dum, ba-Dum.
Here’s an example from Hamlet itself:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! Oh God O God!
(Act I, Scene 2, 129-132).
In this opening soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his despair at the circumstances where he finds himself. He laments that suicide is not, at this point, an option because to do so would condemn his soul to Hell. Although Hamlet does not even know that his fellows have seen the ghost, his words foreshadow many of the themes already at work in the play. Hamlet’s later decisions, especially upon viewing the probable ghost of his father, have to be taken in context of both his consideration of suicide and concern over the state of his soul.
But back to iambic pentameter.
Making the iambic pentameter obvious in the verses above results in the following:
o THAT / this TOO / too SOL / id FLESH / would MELT
thaw AND / reSOLVE/ itSELF / inTO / a DEW
One of the first things that you might notice about these lines is that they are unrhymed. Because the last line of each stanza is unrhymed, we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.
So why is all of this important?
1. It helps you to read Shakespeare and, hopefully, makes his language a little more approachable.
2. Shakespeare did not always use blank verse throughout Hamlet. Because it is a more formal style of speech, it is used predominately by nobility and other important characters. Seeing when Hamlet himself uses blank verse and when he uses prose can give you keys about the status of the individuals to whom he is speaking, or his perceived sense of the context.
As you read the first two Acts and tackle this module’s assignments, knowledge about iambic pentameter will help you get at the meaning of the text. The glossary will also be helpful to you.
The two discussions and the brief writing activity for Module Six build on the notes and your experiences reading Shakespeare. In the first discussion, you’re asked to examine the appearance of the ghost and the ways in which the characters react to it. To fully form an opinion, you may have to look up some of the words using the resources cited in the notes. Experiencing Shakespeare’s rhythm by reading sections of the play out loud may help with the analysis required for the second discussion. Finally, the short writing activity asks you to describe and analyze the world that Shakespeare creates as a whole. All of the skills and techniques that you’ve learned will come into play when completing this activity.
In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the words “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (I.iv.90) Were spoken by Marcellous shortly after Hamlet leaves to follow a ghost. Marcellous and Horatio both feel that Hamlet should not be left alone with the ghost. Even though Hamlet directed them not to follow him, Marcellous feels that it
wouldn’t be right if they didn’t follow him because “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (I.iv.90) When examined, that statement can refer to many of things about the ruling class that are rotten in the state of Denmark One idea of the rottenness is the marriage between Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and his mother, Gertrude. Many consider the marriage almost incestuous, and Claudius feels he must justify it by stating that he had the approval of the courtiers and that the marriage was in the best interest of Denmark. The marriage is also suspiciously corrupt because it took place only two months after the death of King Hamlet. Those circumstances cause
Hamlet to become extremely upset at his mother for her apparent lack of mourning and helps support the idea of foul play King Hamlet’s death. Another example of the rottenness in Denmark is King Hamlet’s death. Unknown to the people of Denmark, it was Claudius who killed King Hamlet and stole his crown and his wife. Claudius had won the love of Gertrude and then murdered the King by pouring the poisonous “juice of cursed hebona”(I.v.63) into his ear. This poison invaded his defenseless body and “swift as quicksilver it courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body.”(I.v.67) In a sense, the poison used by Claudius spreads throughout the entire country of Denmark.
Rottenness in Denmark is also seen in the ghost of King Hamlet. Just the sign of a walking ghost is a bad omen in itself, a sign that something rotten will or has taken place. The ghost has come to inform Hamlet that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who deprived him of a last opportunity to confess his sins. King Hamlet tells the prince because of this he is doomed to spend his days within the purgatorial fires of his prison and roam at nights. The ghost then calls upon Hamlet to avenge the murder.
Hamlet swears that he will, which will eventually lead to the total decay of him and his uncle. Many things are rotten in the state of Denmark, and images of decay, corruption, and rottenness are common throughout the first act. In this act, most of the corruption has originated from the royalty, and the royalty is directly connected to the well-being of the state of Denmark. In that sense, the royalty resembles what Hamlet calls “.an unweeded garden / that grows to seed,”(I.ii.135) because in an unweeded garden the weeds will eventually kill and corrupt the once healthy plants. In the 1st act of the play, the rotten royalty is set on a course that will eventually spoil the whole country and bring it to ruins.