Shakespeare Quick Quotes
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
This line spoken by Marcellus (and not Hamlet as is commonly believed) is one of the most recognizable lines in all of Shakespeare's works. Despite its fame, this line is left out of some productions of the play¹.
Hamlet (1.4), Marcellus to Horatio
The quote in context
Shortly before midnight, Hamlet meets Horatio on the battlements of the castle. They wait together in the darkness. From below they hear the sound of the men in the castle laughing and dancing riotously; the King draining his "draughts of Rhenish down" (10). Hamlet explains to Horatio his dislike of such behaviour. To Hamlet, drinking to excess has ruined the whole nation, which is known abroad as a land full of drunken swine.
Horatio spots the Ghost of Hamlet's father approaching. Hamlet calls out to the Ghost and it beckons Hamlet to leave with it.
Despite the pleadings of Horatio and Marcellus, who are afraid that the apparition might be an evil entity in disguise, Hamlet agrees to follow the Ghost and the two figures disappear into the dark.
Marcellus, shaken by the many recent disturbing events and no doubt angered (as is Hamlet) by Claudius's mismanagement of the body politic, astutely notes that Denmark is festering with moral and political corruption. Horatio replies "Heaven will direct it" (91), meaning heaven will guide the state of Denmark to health and stability.
For more please see the commentary for I am sick at heart (1.1.8).
Compare Marcellus' line to King Lear (5.3.377):
Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.
¹ In one production of Hamlet, starring the famous actor David Garrick in the title role, the audience "did not hear 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'; instead the scene ended with Hamlet following the Ghost offstage, a "strong" ending which no doubt regularly produced the desired effect" (Mills 38).
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare Quick Quotes: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com//quickquotes/quickquotehamletdenmark.html >.
Mills, John A. Hamlet on Stage. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.
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Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
- Hamlet (1.1.42), Marcellus
Why is it more fitting that a scholar speak to the Ghost? As a scholar, Horatio would have a firm understanding of Latin, the language in which the exorcising of spirits would have been performed. Marcellus hopes that Horatio will have the proper Latin formulae to rid them of the spirit if it proves evil. Shakespeare uses the idea again in a hilarious scene in Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick, complaining about Beatrice, laments, "I would to God some scholar would conjure her." (2.1.233)
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