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Deception in Hamlet

Deception is an essential element of Shakespearean drama, whether it be tragedy, history, or comedy. The deception can be destructive or benign; it can be practiced on others or, just as likely, self-inflicted. On occasion deception becomes the very foundation of a play, as is the case with Twelfth Night, Othello, and, most notably, Hamlet.

The following introduction to the many instances of deception in Hamlet will help you plan your own essay on the broader topic of how this important theme relates to the play on the whole.


1) Hamlet's madness is an act of deception, concocted to draw attention away from his suspicious activities as he tries to gather evidence against Claudius. He reveals to Horatio his deceitful plan to feign insanity in 1.5:

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I, perchance, hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know'; or 'We could, an if we would';
Or 'If we list to speak'; or 'There be, an if they might';
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this is not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you.

2) Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago, itself an elaborate deception, to try to catch Claudius in his guilt. He again reveals his deceit to Horatio:

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) Hamlet schemes to deceive his mother, Gertrude, at their meeting in her closet. Hamlet will appear to intend her harm; he will channel the cruelty of Nero, said to have murdered his mother, to help him "speak daggers" to Gertrude, but he has no intention of being physically brutal:

Soft! now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

4) When Hamlet discovers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carrying his death warrant on the ship bound for England he changes his name to the names of his unwitting companions, thereby sending them to be executed in his place. This unusually ruthless act of deception shocks and disappoints Horatio:

Hamlet. I had my father's signet in my purse,
Which was the model of that Danish seal:
Folded the writ up in the form of the other,
Subscrib’d it, gave’t the impression, plac’d it
The changeling never known. Now, the next day
Was our sea-flight; and what to this was sequent
Thou know’st already.
Horatio. So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't...
Why, what a king is this?

5) Hamlet's philosophical reluctance to murder Claudius results in self-deception several times in the play, particularly in his soliloquies. He convinces himself to delay in his second soliloquy because the Ghost might be playing false: "The spirit I have seen/May be a devil, and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape" (2.2.600), and, in his fifth soliloquy he tricks himself into believing he should not kill Claudius in his chamber (a perfect opportunity) because he would go to heaven if murdered while praying.


Claudius lies to everyone about the murder of Hamlet's father. He expresses guilt over his deception in an aside:

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!

2) Claudius deceives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet's voyage to England, telling them that the lunatic Hamlet must leave Denmark in the interest of public safety. In truth Claudius plans Hamlet's assassination once he is on English soil:

Our sovereign process, which imports at full,
By letters congruing to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet.


1) Polonius deceives Laertes when he gives him his blessing to go to Paris but sends Reynaldo to spy on his every action:

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
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer
Than your particular demands will touch it:
Take you, as 'twere, some distant knowledge of him;
As thus, 'I know his father and his friends,
And in part him: ' do you mark this, Reynaldo?

2) Polonius deceives Hamlet when he, for the benefit of Claudius, arranges for Ophelia to meet Hamlet by accident to determine whether his irrational behavior is the result of "the affliction of his love" (3.1.36). So skilled is Polonius at the art of deceit that he has Ophelia pretend to read a prayer book to deflect any suspicion that might arise from her lurking alone in the corridor – Hamlet will believe she is simply meditating in seclusion:

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
Your loneliness.

3) Again Polonius deceives Hamlet when he hides behind the arras to spy on Hamlet's conversation with his mother (3.3.28). This time, however, Polonius pays for his deceit with his life, as Hamlet pierces him through the curtain, believing he is Claudius.

Even More Deception

One could cite numerous additional examples of deception in Hamlet: Horatio is deceptive by being a willing participant in Hamlet's plot to "catch the conscience of the king" (2.2.606); Ophelia deceives Hamlet by remaining silent about her father's manipulative behavior (2.1.107-9) and (3.1.43-9); Fortinbras lies to his uncle about his plan to attack Denmark (1.2.28-30); Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deceive Hamlet about their voyage to England; Laertes lies to Hamlet about the poison-tipped sword he wields in the duel; and so on.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Deception in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 25 Aug. 2008. <" > .


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