In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” there are many characters who demonstrate deception, putting on a show for others in order to hide their true feelings or intentions. Sometimes, they deceive these other characters out of necessity; often, however, they are also fooling themselves. In this paper, we will examine which characters in Hamlet put on a show, and why they do it. Through this, we can gain a greater understanding of the subtleties of the play and what Shakespeare has to say about the futility of deception.
The first character to deceive is, obviously, the titular character of Hamlet. Over the course of the play, he decides to feign madness in order to give a reasonable excuse for his off-kilter behavior. He needs to provide a smokescreen for his information gathering to see if Claudius killed his father. He even admits it to Horatio in act 1, scene 5 that he will “put an antic disposition on” for this very purpose. (1.5. 190)
There is even more evidence that he is deceiving, and we see the results of intention of his actions. His entire staging of The Murder of Gonzago is meant to draw out Claudius and call him out, which he admits to Horatio again, saying:
Give him a heedful note
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.” (3.2. 86-89)
Next, Hamlet decides to pretend to threaten Gertrude in order to scare her and perpetuate his cycle of madness, stating that he “will speak daggers to her, but use none.” (3.2. 388) As the play goes on, Hamlet takes even crueler steps towards deception, as switching names with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sends them to their deaths. With Horatio’s horrified reaction to Hamlet’s actions (“Why, what a king is this?”), we see that Hamlet has gone too far. (5.2. 62)
Hamlet also lies to himself, especially to postpone the act of killing Claudius, something is he far more reticent to do than he could admit. First, he delays because he forces himself to doubt the validity of the Ghost (“The spirit I have seen/May be a devil, and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape”) (2.2 600) and then he also hesitates killing Claudius during prayer in his chamber, because he is convinced that Claudius might be sent to Heaven.
Hamlet is, of course, not the only character to deceive. The most obvious and overarching deception (the one that provides the main impetus for the plot) is Claudius covering up how Hamlet’s father was murdered by Claudius’ hand:
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word:
O heavy burthen!” (3.1. 50)
Also, Claudius is capable of further deception, as he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Hamlet has to go to England for the purposes of public safety, when he just intends to assassinate Hamlet as soon as he reaches England.
Polonius is another character who deceives others in the play for his own purposes: first, he tells Laertes to go to Paris with his blessing, but secretly has Reynaldo spy on Laertes during the trip:
Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
What company, at what expense; and finding
That they do know my son, come you more nearer
Than your particular demands will touch it.” (2.1 8-13)
He even arranges a situation where Ophelia can learn the reason for Hamlet’s madness and erratic behavior (whether or not it is because of “the affliction of his love”) (3.1. 36) by having her accidentally meet him with prayer book in hand, so that Hamlet can open up to her without him knowing that he can hear her:
Ophelia, walk you here. Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves. (To Ophelia) Read on this book,
That show of such an exercise may color
Of course, Polonius’ constant deception costs him his life, as he gets stabbed behind the curtain when he hides there in order to listen to Hamlet talk to Gertrude (3.3 28).
Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius are only the most important characters to deceive, and the ones who deceive the most. Many other characters also deceive, including Laertes’ important deception by wielding the poisoned sword during the duel at the end. Most of the lies, for their purposes, are justified by the characters to serve their ends; however, many of them do not pay off in the end. Only Hamlet really gets his revenge, but at the cost of his own life. The other plans by the other characters often backfire and end in their own demise.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Literature: an introduction to fiction, poetry, drama, and writing Ed. Kennedy and Gioia. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.