How does Claudius Manipulate Laertes: Manipulative Machinations

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Maggie MillsBeckerLiterature and composition12 March 2018 “Quintessence of dust” The weight of one’s mortality and the complexities of life lead people to question and ponder what their fate will be in the afterlife. In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet questions the meaning of life and grapples to accept his own existence. The motif of death and decay develops throughout the play, starting figuratively and evolving into a more literal interpretation, leading to the conclusion that death is the great equalizer.

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The Puppeteer’s Strategy

The play is set in Denmark and follows Hamlet after his father, King Hamlet, is murdered. Quickly following King Hamlet’s death, his wife remarries Claudius, the King’s brother, who becomes the new King of Denmark. Hamlet then receives a visit from his late father’s ghost. The ghost apprises Hamlet that Claudius is the person who murdered him and promptly asks Hamlet to exact revenge on Claudius. As he attempts to avenge his father’s death, Hamlet struggles between thought and action. Shakespeare’s references to death and decay parallel the fall of the kingdom of Denmark to reflect the insidious nature of corruption that leads to political instability, degradation of morality, and the loss of meaning in life. The motif of death and decay develops right from the beginning of the play and reflects the developing corruption that leads to political instability. With Claudius’ quick marriage following the death of his brother, Hamlet has a difficult time expressing his grief. Claudius berates Hamlet for showing grief and denounces that it is innate for a son to mourn the death of his father but that mourning for too long is “unmanly.” Coupled with the recent events and not being able to properly grieve, Hamlet becomes angry, and his outlook on life changes. In Act 1 Scene 2, Hamlet’s new view of the world is revealed as, “‘Tis an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed. / Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.139-141).

Orchestrating Revenge

Shakespeare compares the world to an unweeded garden that is being encroached on and tainted. In rank gardens, weeds choke and encroach the life out of the other plants. Claudius is the weed encroaching on Denmark with his corrupt nature and selfish desires. Shakespeare’s references to the garden as “rank” and “gross” exemplify death and decay. Shakespeare’s use of the words “rank” and “gross” suggest the way a politically corrupt leader can negatively influence his subjects causing the corruption to spread throughout the kingdom. In Act 1 Scene 4, as Hamlet follows the ghost of his dead father into the dark, Horatio warns about the mysterious changes in the kingdom, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.100). Horatio senses that something is amiss in the state of Denmark that is bringing about its demise. The use of the word “rotten” further develops the decay motif and enriches the imagery of decaying bodies. The word rotten is usually associated with the breakdown and decomposition of an organism that spreads, causing other organisms to do the same. Political corruption is the natural result of the loss of morals in society; Claudius’ loss of morals transfers to his leadership, thus spreading and corrupting everyone in its path. When a person desires power, they will do anything to obtain it, even ignoring their morals just to obtain power. Insecurities and instability in the state further degrade morals and fuel the spread of corruption throughout society, each feeding on the other.The decay motif is consistently woven through the play to reveal the deterioration of the individual’s mind and the cancerous death of society as a whole. In the play, honesty is a rare virtue that most of the characters lack – most are permeated with deceit. In Act 2 Scene 2, Polonius is trying to determine the root of Hamlet’s madness when Hamlet tells him, “For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog,/ being a god kissing carrion” (2.2.197-199).

The Tragic Consequences

Through his insane discourse, Hamlet is warning Polonius that a lack of honesty breeds corruption. Shakespeare uses the imagery of “breeding maggots,” “dead dogs,” and “carrion” to strengthen the decay motif. The word “carrion” compares Ophelia’s body to dead and rotting flesh that is a breeding ground for maggots. Hamlet is telling Polonius that he is a bad role model and warning him that he needs to protect his daughter, Ophelia before the corruption spreads to her. Corruption is created through hypocrisy and is able to breed and spread to others easily and abruptly. Specifically, corruption can be passed down to future generations through a parent’s hypocrisy. Another trait that breeds corruption is indecisiveness. In the play, Hamlet is a very indecisive person, and as an indecisive person, it is impossible to come to a resolution in life. In Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet is debating whether “To be, or not to be” (3.1.64). Hamlet questions the morality of life over death and weighs the benefits and the drawbacks of ending his life. It is good to be cautious when making important decisions, but too much indecisiveness is not good. Resolution in life can become corrupt by indecisiveness.

Both Polonius and Hamlet are so focused on obtaining good that they lose sight of what is actually good and become corrupt. Hypocrisy and indecisiveness lead to a loss of virtue and cause corruption in the mind of the beholder. In Acts 4-5 of Hamlet, references to death and decay are used to reveal that death is the great equalizer which leads to a cynical perspective on the meaning of life. Claudius, a manipulative and power-hungry leader, gains power at the expense of other people. In Act 4 Scene 7, when Laertes confronts Claudius about the death of his father, Claudius tries to steer the conversation in a different direction. Claudius manipulates Laertes by saying, “For goodness, growing to pleurisy, /Dies in his own too-much. That we would do /We should do when we would” (4.7.133-135). Not long before that, in Act 3, Hamlet sees Claudius confessing his sins; it appears that Claudius has changed and is seeking forgiveness; however, his corrupt nature has just gotten worse, and he is now trying to manipulate Laertes. Claudius is playing at Laertes’ emotions by asking him if he loves his father and asking to what lengths he will go to prove his love for his father.

The Mirror of Corruption

Claudius uses the word “pleurisy” and “die” to tell Laertes that love can die in its excess. When a person shows their love to another, it is excess, but when they stop, it can seem like the love is dying. Claudius manipulates Laertes into helping him kill Hamlet by telling him that if he does not continue to prove his love for his father, then his love will eventually fade away. Claudius’ manipulation of Laertes reveals the depths of his lack of morality. Claudius’ corrupt nature has spread to the once honorable Laertes and blurred his morals as well, causing us to question the meaning of life. If anyone can change their morality, is there any meaning in life? Death and decay become much more literal in Act 5 in the graveyard scene when the Gravediggers are preparing for Ophelia’s burial. Hamlet and the Gravediggers discuss how long it takes a body to decompose, which leads Hamlet to wonder about great rulers like Alexander and Caesar, “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned to dust, the dust is earth, of earth/ we make loam…Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, /Might stop a hole to keep the wind away (5.1.216-222). Hamlet begins to realize that power and class do not matter once a person is dead and that everyone eventually turns into dust.

As Hamlet comes to the conclusion that death is the great equalizer, he also determines that if the most powerful man (Alexander) cannot become more than dirt, then there is no hope for himself. Even if he completes the task his father gave him, in the end, they will all be dust anyway. Shakespeare utilizes the motif of death and decay, his setting a graveyard, to emphasize the effects of political corruption and how it can cause the entire kingdom to crumble in the end and leave only dust to show for it. The inevitability of death causes Hamlet to be upset and makes him realize that his actions were worthless and reveals Shakespeare questioning the fact that no matter how much good you do on earth, once you are dead, it really does not matter. The corruption caused by the lack of morality creates a loss of meaning in life. By the end of the play, eight out of the nine main characters die. Even though the majority of the play revolves around death and decay, the question of mortality is never truly answered. Instead, Shakespeare reveals the insidious nature of corruption through references to death and decay.


In his craze for power, Claudius’ morals become blurred and lost, causing him to become corrupt. His corruption transferred to his reign as king, creating an unstable state that was vulnerable to the spread of corruption. The corruption caused by the lack of morality creates a loss in the meaning of life. It seems that the value of life should be measured by the good a person does for their loved ones and for society. The problem, Hamlet finds, is that individuals are susceptible to corruption and moral decay, especially ones who are hypocritical and indecisive. Individuals who are hypocritical and indecisive have lost their virtue, making them very susceptible to becoming corrupted. Any person can lose their moral compass, but that magnetic decay feeds the loss of morals in others and begins to choke and kill the fabric of society. Death and decay feed on themselves, multiply and remove meaning from existence. Unfortunately, Hamlet also determines that even the most pious and powerful of men still end up in the ground, slowly turning to dust or to clay. Ultimately, life has no meaning. The powerful and the weak, the good and the bad, all have the same fate.


  1. “Hamlet: A User’s Guide” by Michael Pennington

  2. “The Death of Kings: A Medical History of the Kings and Queens of England” by Clifford Brewer and Hugh Chamberlen

  3. “The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1” by Harold Goddard

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How Does Claudius Manipulate Laertes: Manipulative Machinations. (2023, Aug 15). Retrieved from