Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark


This phrase is taken from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The speaker is Marcellus, a guard, who talks to his philosophical comrade, Horatio, saying, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Act-I, Scene-IV). The reason of saying this is just not that Denmark is facing dirt. It means that the situation of Denmark is similar to a fish that rots from head to tail, or in other words, it shows that everything is not good at top of political hierarchy.


It also refers to different things in the play such as the corrupt ruling class in the state of Denmark, or the destruction of something unknown. Another idea is the rottenness of Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage — or the idea of incest. Many consider this marriage incestuous, whereas King Claudius feels it necessary to justify that it is in the best interests of his country, and that his courtiers have approved it. However, his marriage is suspiciously corrupt, as it takes place only two months after King’s death, and also that it is not allowed in religion. These circumstances cause Prince Hamlet to enormously upset at Queen’s apparent lack of mourning, supporting the idea of corrupt and foul play after King Hamlet’s death.


This phrase has a wide range of usage. It is found abundantly in literature, politics, courts, media and everyday life specifically when referring to a dirty politics. It perfectly fits for a corrupt leader, ruler or political party in a country. It can also be used for a boss for his misruling and corrupt administration. It can be applicable to any type of corruption happening whether in politics, at home, businesses, or even in love, meaning something wrong going around.

Literary Source

Marcellus, a guard at the fort, uses this phrase in Act-I, Scene-IV of Hamlet, during his conversation with Horatio as given below;

He waxes desperate with imagination.

Let’s follow. ‘Tis not fit thus to obey him.

Have after. To what issue will this come?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Heaven will direct it.

Nay, let’s follow him. [Exeunt.]

(Act-I, Scene-IV, Lines 87-91)

Shakespeare has portrayed Denmark as a place of human villainy — a breeding ground of political as well as spiritual corruption.

Literary Analysis

In Hamlet, this phrase is of immense significance. It is because it is spoken by a run of the mill, who has nothing to do with the upper echelons of the society. Still, he knows that if the elite or corruption, a state ceases to exist. The condition prevailing in Denmark are highly intriguing and confusing. In the midst of this confusion, Marcellus’s popular non sequitur carries on threatening mood of mystery and disjointed action. It also reinforces tone and point of some earlier remarks of Hamlet in Act-I, Scene-II, “Tis an unweeded garden.” When the ghost of his father tells him a chilling story in Scene-V, Hamlet realizes how really things are going to dogs in the Denmark.

Literary Devices

  • Non Sequitur: This phrase has used non sequitur because the statement logically does not follow the previous statement spoken by Horatio.