Skip to content

There’s Something Rotten

We all know that Hamlet said, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”.  But did you know that was a reference to an earlier quote?

Herodotus attributes to Miltiades the following speech, quoted in Sir Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World:

It now rests with you, Callimachus, either to enslave Athens, or, by assuring her freedom, to win yourself an immortality of fame, such as not even Harmodius and Aristogeiton have acquired.  For never, since the Athenians were a people, were they in such danger as they are in at this moment.  If they bow the knee to these Medes, they are to be given up to Hippias, and you know waht they then will have to suffer.  But if Athens comes victorious out of this contest, she has it in her to become the first city of Greece.  Your vote is to decide whether we are to join battle or not.  If we do not bring on a battle presently, some factious intrigue will disunite the Athenians, and the city weill be betrayed to the Medes.  But if we fight, before there is anything rotten in the state of Athens, I believe that, provided the Gods will give fair play and no favour, we are able to get the best of it in the engagement.

Now my Greek is not the best — which is to say, nonexistent — so I don’t know if Creasy, writing in the mid-19th century, is choosing Shakespeare’s idiom, or if that idiom already existed in a 16th-century translation of Herodotus available to Shakespeare.  At least one 19th-century translation gives “unsoundness” where Creasy has rotten; but a recent history of the Persian Empire also uses “something rotten“, probably after Creasy.

Strangely, I can’t seem to find a free e-text of Volume 6 of Herodotus’s history (which is where the passage appears) in Greek.  Almost certainly, because I’m not looking hard enough.  But I actually should be working, so I’ll leave it at this.

Update: On reflection, it’s certainly the other way: Creasy translated Herodotus using Shakespeare’s idiom.  Too bad, though, it was a fun thought.