Hamlet is a play in which nothing can be taken at face value: appearances are frequently deceptive, and many characters engage in play-acting, spying and pretense. What deliberate attempts are made at deception?
Deception is a key theme of the play, and often characters try to deceive each other. This places the audience in a curious position, as there are many incidents that remain unclear whether they are deliberate deception or not. One example of this would be Hamlet's madness and the way that he appears in Ophelia's chamber. If the audience feels he is feigning his madness, this is a perfect example of deception. However, if the audience feels he is genuinely mad, Hamlet clearly is presented as a figure that the audience has much sympathy with. Perhaps the most blatant example of deception is in Act III scene 1, when Polonius and Claudius "arrange" for Hamlet to come upon Ophelia whilst they are spying on them both. Note how Claudius explains what he is engineering:
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Her father and myself, lawful espials,
Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge...
This is of course another example of how the deception could be much deeper at this stage in the play than the overt deception being practised upon Hamlet. Any critic of this play is left to wonder whether Claudius is really trying to deceive Hamlet for his own benefit, to work out what is troubling him, or whether he begins to suspect that Hamlet may have worked out his own role in his father's death. To what extent therefore is Claudius deceiving Gertrude in addition to Hamlet in this scene? Claudius insists his motives for this deception are worthy, but an audience may doubt this. Deception, even when it is overt, raises other more subtle and disturbing questions that challenge the audience's perceptions of various characters.