Shakespeare’s depiction of human nature through all his plays reveals the corruption that infects human beings. Corruption appears in many forms in Shakespeare. At its most obvious level, corruption is linked to power and we see countless examples of corruption in the most powerful characters in the plays. Shakespeare often explores the ways in which kings and other powerful figures abuse their position, as well as the ways in which ambitious men plot to gain power, usually the throne, by illegitimate means.
As the mediaeval age gave way to the Renaissance the idea persisted that order depends on a close-knit hierarchical society with a legitimate leader at the top, sometimes even ordained by God. Also, the strong humanistic idea persisted that the role of a ruler was to make the welfare of the state and its citizens his priority. To subvert that and make his own self-interest his main priority is to corrupt that ideal.
King Richard II (Richard II) is an anointed, legitimate monarch who places his own interests above those of his country and its people. He is intelligent and sensitive but is temperamentally unsuited to be a ruler. Surrounded by parasites and sycophants, he spends vast amounts of money on himself and his friends, and in so doing risks bankrupting the country. And so he imposes heavy and unreasonable taxes on his subjects.
Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, takes him to task and is banished. When Richard goes too far and confiscates the property of Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke returns to England with an army, to reclaim his father’s property.
The play then becomes a drama of the conflict between these two characters, a legitimate but weak king and a subject wronged by him – a subject who, although he denies the desire to be king himself, is far more fitted to be a leader than Richard is. The play is, in a sense, a debate about kingship and what to do about a man who is God’s lieutenant on earth but unfit to be that. Bolingbroke overthrows him and assumes the throne. In this case it is not the usurper who is corrupt but God’s anointed who is, and he is deposed to bring an end to his corruption.
In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna announces that he is taking a leave of absence and appoints a courtier, Angelo, to deputise for him. Angelo is faced with the task of bringing order to a Vienna that has become morally slack. He has a reputation for purity and probity but what he doesn’t know is that the Duke is testing him, knowing that he has a dark secret in his past.
A young man, Claudio, is in prison, condemned to death for the crime of fornication. His attractive sister, Isabella, about to become a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Overcome with lust, Angelo tells her that he will spare Claudio’s life if she will sleep with him. Isabella threatens to expose him and, covering himself with the cloak of his powerful position and the reputation of purity, replies that no-one would believe an unknown young woman’s allegations against someone in his position and with his reputation.
In the end, with the Duke in disguise, observing the events and keeping a tight hand on them, everything works out. Isabella’s chastity is preserved, Claudio’s life is spared, and the nature of Angelo’s brief but corrupt rule is publicly revealed. Angelo is forced to make amends for his betrayal of a woman in his past. This is a fine example of a figure of power putting his own interest before that of his state and its people.
Corruption reveals itself differently in Hamlet. The play is saturated with images of corruption. The rottenness in the state of Denmark is reflected everywhere in images of ill health, weeds overwhelming healthy plants, everything decaying and rotting, and poison killing wholesome things. Right at the beginning of the play a minor character, Francisco, says ‘I am sick at heart,’ setting the tone for the whole text.
We are constantly reminded of the pervading atmosphere of decay. Throughout the play we can trace a path of corruption, that leads to death, through images of disease in the characters of Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet.
Polonius is an obviously corrupt character. His corruption has occurred long before the play begins. He has a courteous, long-winded, comical manner but with a nastiness at his core. He is dominating: we see that in the way he instructs Laertes: ‘These few precepts in thy memory/ Look thou character.’ He is not only domineering in his abuse of Ophelia, he is also controlling and dismissive of her as a daughter and a woman. We then see him being meddling and subversive, setting spies on his own son, and finally, fatally corrupt as he schemes and plots for Hamlet’s death. His own death is retribution for that.
The centre of corruption in the kingdom and in the play is Claudius. When Marcellus states, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ he is talking about Denmark’s relationship with Norway but on the symbolic level he is summing up Claudius’ corrupting effect on the kingdom which is intensified by his unpunished crime. Claudius’ corrupt actions carry him to the throne and pollute the people around him causing chaos, sorrow and death. The image of rotting along with its stench permeating far and wide symbolizes the infectious quality of sin.
Hamlet tries to separate his noble qualities, which we have seen throughout the play, from the circumstance and treachery against which he has struggled, and in which he has been entangled. He has also become corrupted. He is unable to act – any action he takes will be morally dubious. Not taking revenge will reduce him and make him unfit for rule by his own standards, and taking revenge will do the same. He is trapped in a corrupt circle from which there is no escape. By the end of the play he has murdered five people and caused the suicide of one. But he has routed the corruption around him. From a morally dubious situation, he is able to wrest an honourable death, and the chance of stability for the future of his country.
Corruption leads to the death of all three – Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet – and Hamlet has to die: there is no way around it. He has drawn all the corruption on to himself and, with his death, destroyed it.
Corruption is a major Shakespearean theme and the above discussion is no more than a brief introduction with surface-scratching examples.