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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 arranges the performance of The Mousetrap, a play closely resembling the murder of Hamlet’s father, in order to witness the reaction of Claudius. If Claudius displays some form of guilt upon viewing the play, Hamlet will be sure that Claudius murdered his father. Hamlet believes with “an antic disposition” (I.v.192), he will more easily and, in his mind, rightfully be able to avenge his father’s death. Polonius acknowledges Hamlet’s madness while conceding “there is / method in ‘t” (II.ii.223-4), ultimately realizing that Hamlet has some ulterior motive in putting on such a facade. Though members of the Danish court recognize Hamlet’s loss of sanity, they all seem to offer different reasons for his madness as Hamlet’s reticent nature presents very few possible explanations.
Both close friends of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ordered by Claudius and Gertrude to spy on Hamlet to discover the cause of his insanity. As the Queen insists, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will show Gertrude and Claudius “gentry and goodwill / As to expend [their] time” (II.ii.22-3) by paying a visit to Hamlet. Once again, Hamlet’s taciturn attribute is prohibiting his mother and Claudius from determining the underlying cause of “Hamlet’s transformation” (II.ii.5). Preoccupying himself with presenting a pretense of madness, Hamlet seems to lose his zeal to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet even questions his own character when an actor with “Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect” (II.ii.582) demonstrates a more impassioned sense of vengeance for his father’s death than he does. Hamlet’s deception, intended to uncover his father’s true murderer, prompts him into a state of self-doubt in which Hamlet condemns himself and questions whether he is a coward.
Polonius, convinced that Hamlet’s melancholic state is caused by his love for Ophelia, hides with Claudius to listen in on a conversation with Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet, portraying himself as insane, insolently orders Ophelia “to a nunnery” (III.i.131) as she would become a “breeder of sinners” (III.i.132). Following the argument, Claudius claims that he will send Hamlet to England to rid him of his ominous, melancholic state. Polonius, on the other hand, continues to affirm that Hamlet’s agitation is still a result of his love for Ophelia. However misleading Hamlet’s pretended madness may be, Hamlet continues to question his ambition to murder Claudius and avenge his father’s death.
Polonius further employs deceit to try to understand Hamlet’s actions. Unhesitant to deceive his own son, Polonius is predictably eager to spy on Hamlet in hopes of pleasing Claudius. In an effort to determine the true rationale for Hamlet’s insanity, Polonius hides himself “Behind the arras […] / To hear the process” (III.iii.30-31) of Hamlet revealing his true emotions. Polonius’ resultant death comes after Hamlet, thinking that Claudius is hiding, stabs through the curtain. This event foreshadows the many deaths that will result from deception.
Meanwhile, Claudius and Laertes are unaware that their conniving plan to murder Hamlet will prove to be self-destructive. Laertes touches his sword to the “contagion, that, if [he] gall [Hamlet] slightly, / It may be death” (IV.vii.167-8) and consents to a duel with Hamlet who is unaware of the poisoned foil that will be used. Claudius, on the other hand, prepares “A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping, / If he by chance escape [Laertes’] venomed stuck” (IV.vii.183-4). In due course, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet are all killed throughout the course of the duel as they are victims of their own ambition to deceive.
As clever as his plan may be, gaining vengeance by feigning madness is not effective because it causes Hamlet to question himself in attempting to murder Claudius and seize revenge. The act of betrayal is also emphasized as characters such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, lifelong friends of Hamlet, abandon him in order to serve Claudius. Deception can only result in a character’s demise. If Hamlet had simply ignored his doubt and trusted his conscience, Claudius would have been avenged and many lives would have been saved.
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