Grammar

The Story Behind the Phrase, ‘There’s Something Rotten in Denmark’

When there’s something suspicious, why do blame it on ‘something rotten in Denmark’? It turns out William Shakespeare is to blame!

Whenever you hear the phrase, “There’s something rotten in Denmark,” what do you think?

Chances are you consider what has come to be the understood meaning of the phrase today.

You probably don’t think about the famous person responsible for bringing the phrase into our language.

That famous person would be William Shakespeare.

The original version of the phrase appeared in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The statement was uttered as Horatio and Hamlet see the ghost of Hamlet’s father beckoning to his son. Hamlet’s father had been king and was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius.

When the ghost beckons Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus try to prevent Hamlet from following the ghost, fearing that harm could come to him.

The comment about something being “rotten in Denmark” is taken as a commentary on the corruption under Claudius’s rule in Denmark.

The next line, which is never included when someone uses the phrase today, paints a picture of faith:

“Heaven will direct it.”

This is interpreted as, “We should let God take care of it.”

Of course, when you hear the phrase today, people are not making any concerted effort to resurrect what has come to be regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

As I mentioned earlier, the average person probably has absolutely no idea that the phrase came from a play written sometime around the year 1600.

Today, the phrase, adapted from a 400-year-old piece of literature, refers to the possibility of a conspiracy, an evil plot that’s afoot, or a sense of foreboding.

Have you ever used the phrase, “There’s something rotten in Denmark?” If so, were you aware of where the phrase actually originated?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.