A Theme Of Deception In Hamlet By William Shakespeare

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Deception is often regarded as unethical and evil by society. In William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, the characters Hamlet and Claudius use deception to mislead the other characters for their benefit. The importance of power and persona to individuals becomes essential in determining the motives behind each character’s deception. Characters Hamlet and Claudius are proof of that claim. They exhibit a strict focus on defeating their enemies, the people who are out to get them and the people who have deceived them. Their unchanging objective of deception is to ensure that the citizens of Denmark know the truth behind the crimes that have occurred. Shakespeare has demonstrated deception through the characters Hamlet and Claudius in which their actions have resulted in the fall of the kingdom and the deaths of several characters.

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After Hamlet finds out that his uncle murdered his father, his main goal becomes to unveil Claudius’s true character. He seeks to reveal to the citizens of Denmark that their king has deceived them by lying about how King Hamlet died. In order to do this, Hamlet pretends to go mad. While he does this, he pushes away many of the people that are closest to him. He tells Ophelia that “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not”. Hamlet possibly knows that he is being watched so he lies to Ophelia that he no longer loves her. This indicates to Ophelia that her relationship with Hamlet has been a lie. The prince knows that Ophelia has been told to keep her distance from him and as a result he is criticizing her. She realizes that Hamlet’s behavior has changed quite while drastically. From Hamlet’s perspective, he had no choice because “Hamlet delays for two months before taking any action, feigning madness better to learn for himself the truth about Claudius’s guilt” so that he can get his revenge by revealing the truth and taking the two things that are most important to Claudius, the thorne and Gertrude. His lie about his madness and their failed relationship are one of the indicators of why Ophelia drowned. Her fixation over Hamlet pushed her to the edge. Her madness was genuine unlike Hamlet’s.

As the play progresses, Hamlet’s purpose became to avenge his father’s death. The protagonist’s hatred for the king has made him want to put his uncle to shame for murdering King Hamlet and being untruthful to inhabitants of Denmark. To accomplish his one desire, he has decided to put on a play for the citizens of Denmark. The play, “The Murder of Gonzago”, is going to be acted out in which the players will uncover that Claudius killed King Hamlet to obtain the crown and marry queen Gertrude. As he is preparing for the play, “he’ll have the players play something like the murder of his father before his uncle. he’ll observe his looks. He’ll tent him to the quick. If ‘a do blench, he knows his course”. Hamlet is plotting to use the play to conclude if Claudius is guilty of killing his father or not. In order to do this, he and Horatio will keep an eye on Claudius’s reactions as the play advances. Hamlet’s spying will be the determinant of whether Claudius is at fault or not. Although he already knows that Claudius was the murderer, Hamlet is still going to use the play to reveal that Claudius is responsible for his father’s death since he will not admit to it.

Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have taken the side of Claudius. They are pretending to be his friend while they spy on him for the king. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are instructed by Claudius to accompany Hamlet to England with a letter ordering for his execution because “it is Hamlet’s plotting to destroy his uncle, the new King, for which Claudius seeks his nephew’s death”. However when Hamlet finds out, he plots to replace the letter that called for his execution with a letter that called for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet feels angry by the fact that his once best friends are betraying him, therefore he decides that he wants “those bearers put to sudden death/ not shriving-time allowed”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have deceived Hamlet by working with Claudius and Gertrude to spy on him. Hamlet feels betrayed by them and is now seeking revenge. Hamlet has turned the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by replacing the letter that called for his execution with a letter declaring the execution of the carriers of the letter. Hamlet’s plotting against his two former friends leads to their deaths and gives Hamlet the satisfaction of getting revenge.

Claudius’s deceitful nature has resulted in the deaths of several characters in the play. His initial lie about the truth behind Hamlet’s father’s death has paved the way for further lying, plotting, and spying. The King has deceived the citizens of Denmark by convincing them that King Hamlet passed away from a snake bite. However, Claudius was the one who put an end to his life. The truth was revealed to Hamlet when the Ghost tells him that “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” (Ghost 1.5.42-47). King Claudius deposited poison into King Hamlet’s ear while he was asleep. Claudius manipulates the sincerity of the situation to protect his reputation so that others would not know that he is a murderer. He puts on a facade to gain the position as King. His selfishness fuels Hamlet’s anger causing him to retaliate by wanting to kill Claudius. When Hamlet and Gertrude are having a conversation Polonius plans to spy on them hoping for an answer to why Hamlet’s erratic behavior. When Gertrude cries out for help, Polonius fears for her life and also cries out for help. When Hamlet hears Polonius he thinks that he is Claudius and stabs him. Killing Polonius was not Hamlet’s intention, “nowhere in the play does Hamlet initiate a plot to kill anyone” (Pannu). Polonius’s death was merely the outcome of Claudius’s lies and deception. Not only did Claudius’s inconsiderate actions lead to Polonius’s death, but they also lead to Ophelia’s death. Ophelia’s father’s death drove her into a state of insanity. Her father’s death overtook her and was one of the reasons that eventually lead to her commiting suicide by drowning herself in the river.

Claudius’s urge to kill Hamlet stems from his fear for his role as King and for his life and “therefore engages Laertes in a plot to murder Hamlet secretly and with the help of poison”. Hamlet is being held responsible for Polonius and Ophelia’s deaths. When Laertes proposes a plan to kill Hamlet to avenge the deaths of his father and sister, Claudius chimes in to help. The king suggests to Laertes that he persuades Hamlet to a duel in which he will use a sharpened sword with poison on it. This way even a slight cut will elicit his death. Claudius also suggests that “if this should fail, and that our drift look through our bad performance, ‘Twere better no assayed. Therefore this project should have a back or second that might hold if this did blast in proof”. Claudius wants to ensure that there is a back up plan just in case the first one does not work. Laertes is seeking vengeance for what Hamlet has done to his family and is therefore plotting with Claudius to kill him. Their plot led to the accidental death of Gertrude before it led to Hamlet’s death. Gertrude accidentally drank the poisoned wine as a means of celebration for Hamlet’s victory in the duel against Laertes. When Hamlet finds out that the King was to be blamed for his mother’s death he is enraged and stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword and makes him drink the poisoned wine ultimately leading to his death. Hamlet and Laertes’ death followed the deaths of the queen and the king as they were both slashed by the poisoned sword. Once again, Claudius’s egocentric personality and plotting led to what was supposed to be one character’s death, but instead to the deaths of five characters including himself.

Deception has played a key role throughout William Shakespeare’s play. Two major character, Hamlet and Claudius, display the need for power and the importance of their image through their misleading actions. The deceptive occurrences throughout the play emulate the characters’ selfish nature in which the result has been the deaths of many characters. Hamlet’s initial goal of uncovering the truth about his father’s death and Claudius’ need to protect himself from Hamlet have led to the fall of the kingdom. Deception has existed for thousands of years and will continue as individuals will keep needing beyond what they can have in order to fulfill themselves even if it means the lives of other people will be threatened.  

16 December 2021

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