‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ is a famous line from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, but since Hamlet is positively brimming with famous lines, it doesn’t get as much attention as other famous quotations from the play.
Many of us know, and some may use, phrases such as ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘neither a borrower not a lender be’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’, ‘in my mind’s eye’, ‘primrose path’, ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’, ‘method in one’s madness’, and many more. All of these derive from one play: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But how does ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ come into the play? And what is the meaning of the phrase when it’s used not about Denmark, but other places and other situations?
The line ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ is not spoken by one of the play’s major characters. It comes at the end of Act 1 Scene 4, when the Ghost has appeared (or, more accurately, reappeared) on the battlements of Elsinore castle, and beckoned to Hamlet to come and speak with it.
My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.
Still am I call’d. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! Go on; I’ll follow thee.
The Nemean lion was an animal thought to be invincible in Greek myth. Heracles strangled it as the first of his famous twelve labours, but no other man could vanquish it. So Hamlet is essentially saying, ‘I know it’s my destiny to follow the Ghost and hear what it has to say. Every blood vessel in my body is resolved to do that.’
The line ‘I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me’ may strike modern readers as confusing, but ‘lets’ here is used in the old sense of ‘prevents’ or ‘hinders’. Hamlet is so resolved to go and talk to the Ghost that he is prepared to kill anyone who attempts to hold him back.
He waxes desperate with imagination.
Let’s follow; ’tis not fit thus to obey him.
Have after. To what issue will this come?
In other words, ‘Let’s follow after Hamlet. I wonder what the outcome of this will be?’ Unlike Marcellus, Horatio is Hamlet’s close friend. Horatio is uneasy about the appearance of the Ghost and what it might represent.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
And here we have the famous line. It’s worth observing that ‘state’, here, doesn’t mean ‘condition’ but ‘nation’ or ‘kingdom’. Something is rotten because ghosts don’t just tend to appear in normal times when everything is spiritually well with the kingdom. But more than that: for the ghost (or supposed ghost) of the late king to appear: something’s not right, and Marcellus, as a soldier and a sentinel keeping watch on the castle battlements, is trained and primed to know when something’s wrong.
Heaven will direct it.
Nay, let’s follow him.
And with that, Act 1 Scene 4 of Hamlet is brought to a close, and Act 1 Scene 5 will focus on Hamlet’s conversation with the Ghost (which we have analysed in detail here).
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ has come to mean ‘something is not right with this’, and is sometimes shortened to ‘something is rotten’. Jasper Fforde, the author of the hilarious Thursday Next novels (mystery novels set in the worlds of classic works of literature), wrote a book, Something Rotten, in which his female detective has to solve a new mystery with the help of the Danish prince from Shakespeare’s play.
But ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ is a significant line in Hamlet because it ushers in what will become a whole array of references to rotting, decay, corruption, and festering. This language is an important aspect of the imagery of the play, and it begins with Marcellus’ line. So, in the famous ‘Gravedigger scene’ later in Hamlet, the title character asks one of the gravediggers, ‘How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he 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: a tanner will last you nine year.
Meanwhile, Laertes tells his sister Ophelia:
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.
And Hamlet, discussing his revenge against Claudius, asks Horatio:
Is’t not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is’t not to be damn’d,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
In other words, ‘isn’t it more evil to let evil go unchallenged so it can enact more evil?’
Hamlet himself had already begun to use such language, however, before Marcellus’ ‘Something is rotten’ line. His first great soliloquy includes the lines:
’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
But once we reach the encounter with the Ghost, and Marcellus’ famous quotation, this rottenness has come to infect not just the royal marital bed but the whole ‘state’ of Denmark.