“Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.” This famous line quoted by the minor character Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet bears great significance. The scene in which this line is uttered plays a huge role in the rest of the play.
To give you a little background and context, I will set the stage: It is around midnight outside the castle in Denmark. Marcellus and Horatio (a guard and a scholar) have taken Hamlet (the prince) outside to witness something amazing; They claimed to have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The ghost appears and wants Hamlet to follow it. Marcellus and Horatio try to hold Hamlet back, but he overpowers them and follows the ghost. Marcellus then recites the harrowing line; “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.”
What does this line mean? Well it gives you the impression that something is wrong, there is trouble ahead. It gives you a little glimpse into the direction of the rest of the play. Any time a ghost shows up in a story, it brings with it disturbance of the norm and general unrest. Even before the line was spoken, you can sense the darkness that is already present within the play. Shakespeare is an expert at opening the story and dropping hidden details.
For example: The play opens into darkness and the ghost appears to the guard in the very first scene. That must say something about the rest of the play; a spirit isn’t exactly the best omen. Something important to note is that the minor characters usually have the best and most significant lines. One of these noteworthy lines is spoken by the guard; “it is cold, and I am sick at heart.”
A few more hints into the trouble that lays ahead are found in the Scene II:
When we first see the Prince Hamlet, he is wearing black. He is mourning the death of his father, the King. In his soliloquy, Hamlet cries out: “Oh, that this too, too, sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world! So, Hamlet hates life and wishes he could kill himself. Everything around him is meaningless, and life is just bleak and dark.
When that famous line is finally uttered by Marcellus in Act I, Scene IV, we already have a good idea that something is wrong in the Denmark, but this is the first time that the feeling was put into words.
It is no surprise then, that the ghost reveals to Hamlet a terrible secret; The King was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. In order to become King he had poured a poisonous liquid into his brother’s ear while he was sleeping. The question remains at the end of the first Act; what will Hamlet do about this treachery? And, what will we see about the character of Prince Hamlet in the end?
Shakespeare loves to be subtle, and he is good at giving you tiny glimpses into the hidden meanings of his most famous lines.