One must always be weary of the truth because it is quite often manipulated to serve the needs of any person who requires that the truth be on their side. Quite often, the only way to discern the truth from the fiction is by way of a deceptive act, because an act of deception always exposes both its self and the truth to be two quite different things. Nowhere is this more true than in William Shakespeare's, Hamlet. One of the major themes in the play is in fact, deception. This central theme is expressed throughout the play in three major forms: the fear of being deceived, the act of deception, and the ultimate result of the deceptive act.
The first facet of the deceptive under-tone in Hamlet is the fear of being deceived. On the third night, after two consecutive appearances of the ghost, Horatio joins Francisco, Bernardo, and Marcellus on the evening watch. Horatio scoffs at their stories of the ghost's appearance, "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear," (I:1, l 37). Horatio is a scholar and a sensible man who needs to see things with his own eyes before he will accept them (I:1, ll 67-69). Therefore, once the ghost appears to him, he quickly changes his viewpoint. He informs Hamlet of the ghost's likeness to his dead father and warns him of where the ghost originates:
"Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,"
(I:4, ll 44-45)
Horatio fears that the ghost might be a deception, a devil sent in a pleasing shape to coax Hamlet into wicked action, (I:4, ll 76-85). Horatio's fear is justified, since during the Elizabethan era it was believed that ghosts were either Heavenly or Satanic, and a man of knowledge like Horatio should take such into consideration. Horatio is not the only character who fears deception. Claudius fears that Hamlet's antic behaviour might be some kind of deception. To learn the truth of Hamlet's actions, Claudius entreats upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (two of Hamlet's oldest friends) to investigate the situation:
"Some little time; so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather
So much as from occasions you may glean,
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus
That, opened, lies within our remedy."
(II:2, ll 14-18)
Claudius, at this early point in the play, is slightly nervous of Hamlet's state of mind. Although Hamlet has not yet done or said anything that distinctly proves that he knows of Claudius' wrongdoing, Claudius is still suspicious. Ironically, he is worried about being deceived by Hamlet, so he sends two of his friends to spy him to learn what is bothering him. Laertes expresses a further example of the fear of deceit in his conversation to Ophelia regarding Hamlet:
"His greatness weigh'd, his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of his whole state,"
(I:3, ll 17-21)
Laertes fears that Hamlet is not sincere in his love for Ophelia. He tells her that since he is of royal blood, he is not free to choose his own wife. The court and other royals must decide who is the best choice to be queen, for the safety of Denmark. Hamlet knows this to be true, and therefore, any sign of love that he gives her must be false. Polonius agrees with Laertes opinion of the situation, thus he forbids Ophelia to see him anymore (1:4, ll 138-142). Both men feel that they are protecting Ophelia from possible deceit by Hamlet. It is the fear of being deceived that is so prevalent in Hamlet, as characterized by Horatio, Claudius, and Laertes & Polonius that leads to further deceptive action.
It is ironic that the characters who fear deception are the very ones who doll it out so freely. One such character who uses deceit often as a means of investigation is Polonius. In the third scene of the second act, Polonius entreats upon Reynaldo to go to Paris to learn as much as he can about Laertes. He tells him to pose as a friend of Laertes to find out if he is behaving as a gentleman (i.e. not visiting bars, gambling, drinking wildly, etc.) This example exposes Polonius' darker side, as one who would spy on his own son. However, this is not the only instance of his darker nature. When asked by Claudius and Gertrude why Hamlet is acting so strangely, he tells them that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, but since she will not have him, he is in a state of love-sickness:
"And he, repulsed, a short tale to make,
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,"
(II:2, ll 156-160)
He continues his conversation with the King and Queen, in which he proposes a plan to prove whether or not his theory is true. He proposes that Claudius and he hide behind a tapestry in the main hall the next time Hamlet and Ophelia meet to determine whether his madness is out of unrequited loved or not (II:2, ll 175-183). This example again exemplifies Polonius' darker, deceitful nature, because he is willing to spy on his own daughter during a meeting with the man that she loves. Another character who plans and executes many acts of deception throughout the play is Hamlet. His "antic disposition" is an act that he puts on to allow him to get into a situation whereby he might learn the truth about his father's death and the ghost's claims (I:1, ll 195-200). Also, Hamlet engineers the play-within-a-play to "catch the conscience of the king,"
(II:2, ll 613). Ironically, plays are fiction, yet by means of this fiction Hamlet is able to determine Claudius' guilt, and thus divide the fiction from the fact. The acts of deception by Polonius and Hamlet are in contrast to their fear of being deceived and help to advance the plot.
There are three main results of the many deceptions in the play. First of all, Gertrude learns the truth about Claudius. Gertrude is guilty of adulterous lust, but she did not play any part in the plan to kill her late husband. In fact, she does not become fully aware of Claudius' guilt until her final breath utters the warning to Hamlet, "O my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink! I am poisoned," (V:2, ll 328-329). She knows Claudius is guilty because she realizes that the poisoned drink was meant for Hamlet. The second major result of deception is the madness that overcomes poor Ophelia. After her father's death, Ophelia loses track of her senses. She dances about the castle, singing carelessly, giving flowers to everyone that she sees. At one point in her merriment she signs of Polonius' death:
"And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead;
Go to thy deathbed;
He will never come again,"
(IV:5, ll 205 - 208)
Great pathos is felt for Ophelia because her madness - unlike the supposed madness of Hamlet - is true. She goes mad because the men in her life treat her very poorly. Polonius forbids her to make her to see Hamlet, and yet he uses her as bait to spy on Hamlet. She believes that Hamlet's madness is the result of his love for her, which makes her feel even more distraught, that she is to blame for the future king's imbalance. Once Polonius dies, she is left with no one (Laertes is away in Paris and Hamlet is showing no interest in her) and it is this sudden abandonment that leaves Ophelia in a state of madness. She is a tragic figure because she is the victim of the deceptive schemes of the men in her life. The third result of the deceptive theme in the play is Hamlet's revenge. Once Hamlet runs Claudius through, his vow to his father's ghost is fulfilled (V:2, ll 349-352). The truth is finally revealed. Hamlet's feigning madness has allowed him to get into a situation wherein he can exact his revenge and reveal Claudius for the fraud that he is. In this final scene, everyone who has anything to do with the plot is killed, thus allowing a new chapter to begin in Denmark. Hamlet is successful in his scheme, and through his great act of deception, the truth is revealed. The results of the deceptions in the play are both tragic and insightful.
Truth is sometimes locked behind a door that can only be opened using the key of deception. In fact, in Hamlet, the theme of deception is prevalent. Furthermore, deception is used as a method of investigation. Many of the characters use deceit in order to learn the truth about other characters. This deceptive theme is expressed in three stages: the fear of being deceived, the act of deception, and the ultimate result of deception. The only truth that is learned through the play is by means of deception. It is ironic that the characters who fear being deceived are the ones who deceive the most.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York:
Pocket Books, 1976.
Deception is a critical component of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Its appears most significantly in Claudius concealing murder and Hamlet concealing knowledge of the same. Hamlet also feigns madness in order to misguide others and attempt to prove Claudius guilty. Others characters, including Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all employ trickery as well to uncover the source of Hamlet’s apparent madness and report back to the dishonorable Claudius. The play’s conclusion suggests that deception will always result in destruction and tragedy.
Claudius effectively misleads members of the Danish court in order to discourage any skepticism that may result from his sudden takeover of power. Claudius asserts that he has not disqualified the courtiers’ “better wisdoms, which have freely gone / With this affair along” (I.ii.15-6), thus validating his apparently unlawful actions. Claudius’ persuasive yet misleading address is intended to justify his hasty marriage to Queen Gertrude and regard the death of Hamlet’s father as merely an unfortunate occurrence, not as a murder that he executed.
Not convinced by this story, Hamlet focuses on misleading and catching Claudius. Hoping to “catch the conscience of the King” (II.ii.634), Hamlet...
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