How is the theme of deception portrayed in Act I of Hamlet?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of deception has a strong presence in Act I of Hamlet in two distinct ways:  through the ghost’s revelation about Claudius and through Hamlet’s decision to act crazy.   

When the ghost appears to Hamlet, the ghost reveals himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet’s father was murdered (which leads to Hamlet’s melancholy mood in the early parts of the play). During the ghost and Hamlet's first meeting, the ghost reveals he was murdered by his brother Claudius. The ghost claims Claudius poured a poison directly into his ear canal. Claudius is now Denmark's king and married Hamlet’s mother. If the ghost is telling the truth, Claudius has deceived the entire country.

In his effort to figure out the real reasoning behind the ghost’s story, Hamlet decides to act crazy or to put an “antic disposition on.” Now it is Hamlet who is being deceptive. Of course, Hamlet’s actions after this decision have always made scholars wonder whether Hamlet is only acting crazy or if Hamlet actually goes insane.

engcor | Student

In Act I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the theme of deception is addressed in more than one way. Of course, there are many interpretations of whether or not these deceptions are moral. Scene V of Act I, in particular, addresses the issue of deception. 

When Hamlet is speaking with his father’s ghost, the theme of deception has a negative connotation:

     'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

     A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark

     Is by a forgèd process of my death

     Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,

     The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

     Now wears his crown.

In this instance, all of Denmark has been deceived by Hamlet’s uncle. The snake that poisoned Hamlet’s father was not of the reptilian variety; it was Hamlet's snake of an Uncle who poisoned and killed his father. It can be argued that murder is always immoral, but it has also been argued that it was for the good of Denmark. Hamlet’s father had a habit of starting wars, and another war was bearing down on the country. 

Another instance which addresses the theme of deception is when Hamlet states,

     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 encumbered thus, or this headshake,

     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.

It is here that Hamlet indicates he plans to act insane in order to enact revenge on his father’s killer. If one finds the act of killing to avenge a murder to be just, then this act of deception is moral. If one does not ascribe to the idea that killing can be considered moral in some circumstances, then the act of deception is immoral.

Basically, the themes addressed by deception depend upon the individual interpretation of what is moral and just, so choose a side and defend it.

kaybrennan874 | Student

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, deception is one essential element and theme that contributes to the play as a whole. Hamlet feigns insanity as an attempt to avenge his father’s murderer. His madness is an act of deception, and Hamlet creates and devises a plan to draw his suspicious activities away from the scene as he does his best to gather evidence against Claudius. In discussing his deceitful plan to feign insanity with Horatio, Hamlet says in Act 1, Scene 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.”

Deception is definitely revolved around the theme of madness.

Hamlet hates deception and values truth in the beginning of the play.

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