There is indeed something “rotten in the state of Denmark,” as Marcellus observes to Horatio as the play begins, and one obvious failing in the Danish court is the apparent inability to act without guile. Deceit seems to be the characters’ default behavior; acts of deception riddle the plot, driving it relentlessly to a deadly conclusion. With the exception of Horatio, the only principal characters who don’t die at the end of the play are those who are already dead—Old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. The dead in Hamlet are all victims of deceit, in one way or another, and with the exception of Old Hamlet, each of them is also guilty of deception.
The catalog of acts of deceit in the play is comprehensive, beginning with the murder of Old Hamlet. In killing the king, concealing the heinous crime, and feigning love for Hamlet, Claudius initiates subsequent events that lead to further deception. Hamlet pretends to be mad in order to verify the truth of his father’s death. Ophelia meets with Hamlet, allowing Claudius and Polonius to eavesdrop on their conversation. Gertrude conspires with Polonius, meeting with Hamlet while Polonius hides in Gertrude's chamber to listen and observe. Claudius schemes to secure Hamlet’s death at the hands of the English king, but through Hamlet’s clever deception, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die instead after reaching England. It is a final act of deception—Claudius and Laertes’s plotting to draw Hamlet into a duel and kill him with Laertes’s poisoned sword—that results in the ultimate catastrophe that plays out in the drama’s final scene.
Would death and disaster throughout the Danish court have been avoided if Hamlet had chosen at the outset to proceed without guile in addressing his father’s death? Shakespeare seems to suggest that no such option existed for Hamlet, given his nature and the intrigue inherent in the exercise of political power. Moreover, killing a king—even a vile usurper like Claudius—cannot be accomplished without grave ramifications. Regardless of Hamlet’s actions in dealing with Claudius, the consequences would have been severe. The number of characters who die in Hamlet is remarkable, even for a Shakespearean tragedy, and they die as a consequence of deceit.