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Garden Imagery in 'Hamlet'

Updated on June 2, 2014
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A Parallel between Elsinore and the Garden of Eden

In one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, there are numerous strands of powerful imagery; however, none of them surpass the strong presence of repeated garden imagery. This garden imagery establishes a parallel between the murder of Hamlet's father and the other bizarre events at Elsinore with a biblical reference to the fall of Paradise. With the murder of Hamlet's father, "...the whole ear of Denmark/ Is by forged process of [the] death/ Rankly abus'd" (I.5, 773-775) just as the whole of the Garden of Eden was 'rankly abus'd' by the temptation of the serpent. Through his consistent use of garden imagery throughout the play, Shakespeare tells not only of the fall of Elsinore but also of the destruction of Paradise.

The Characters

In Hamlet, both the characters and setting of Elsinore offer a distinct parallel to certain aspects of the fall of man. Most prominently, Claudius can be closely associated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Just as the serpent tempts Eve to bite the apple, so too is Claudius tempted by the evil of his own greed and jealousy. Eve's temptation results in the murder of Paradise; Claudius' temptation results in the murder of his own brother, the king, and the paradise of Elsinore. Claudius, the "...serpent that did sting [Hamlet's] father's life" (I.5, 776), parallels directly to the biblical 'sting' of the serpent.

Another strong parallel is evident between Eve and Gertrude. Hamlet reveals this parallel in his first soliloquy when he says, "Frailty, thy name is woman" (I.ii, 350). 'Frailty' is a general reference to all women, but more specifically to Gertrude and her susceptibility to Claudius' incestuous seduction. Just as Eve eventually succumbs to the serpent's temptation, Gertrude is duped by Claudius. Eve's frailty and sensitivity to the serpent's temptations parallels Gertrude's inability to ward off Claudius' advances.

Just as Gertrude parallels Eve, so too does the late king have a connection with Adam. Adam unknowingly sacrificed a rib for the birth of his mate, and Hamlet's father would sacrifice anything for Gertrude. He is "...so loving to [Gertrude],/ That he might not beteem the winds of heaven/ Visit her face too roughly" (I.ii, 344-346). The loyalty Hamlet's father demonstrates for Gertrude is a strong parallel to the loyalty and dedication between Adam and Eve.

detail from "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach (c. 1472-1553)
detail from "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach (c. 1472-1553) | Source

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The Setting

The castle of Elsinore is parallel to the Garden of Eden itself. Adam and Eve's Paradise was shattered by "...things rank and gross in nature " (I.ii, 340). Similarly, the castle Elsinore is a fallen Paradise, "...and unweeded garden,/ That grows to seed" (I.ii, 339-340) such atrocious events as the murder of the king and the incestuous marriage of Gertrude and Claudius.

More specifically, the murder of Hamlet's father shows direct parallels to the fall of man. Adam and Eve's Paradise is 'murdered' within the confines of a garden, the Garden of Eden. The actual murder of the king also takes place within a garden, the garden at Elsinore. Before the troubles of the murder and marriage, Elsinore is a kind of paradise to those who live within it, but with all of the foul play, that paradise is eventually shattered. While Hamlet's father is "...sleeping in [his] orchard,/ A serpent [stings him]" (I.v, 772-773). In the tragedy of Hamlet, the serpent is Claudius; however, in the biblical fall of man, the serpent is the devil and the powers of evil.

Another direct parallel occurs between the apple in the Garden of Eden and the poison in the garden of Elsinore. The apple, in the biblical story, is represented through the "...juice of cursed hebona in a vial" (I.v, 800) which Claudius uses to murder his brother. Figuratively speaking, the apple is the poison with which the serpent murders Adam and Eve's Paradise. Claudius uses hebona to murder the paradise of Elsinore and Hamlet's father.

"The Garden of Eden" by Thomas Cole (c. 1828)
"The Garden of Eden" by Thomas Cole (c. 1828) | Source

The Conclusion

Through Shakespeare's use of garden imagery, a strong parallel is drawn between many aspects of the biblical story of the fall of man and that of the fall of Elsinore. Many similarities are established not only between the characters, but also the settings. The Garden of Eden and Elsinore are paradises to their inhabitants, but the introduction of evil and foul play brings about the destruction of both.

© 2014 SLGraham

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