Lying, Acting, Hypocrisy in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Essay
By far, one of the most notable works in English literature, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, written in 1599, incorporates a range of ideas on a variety of topics. However, when analyzing the poem, one must admit that the themes addressing the failure of human relationships stand out the most. This paper will argue that, although the concepts of hypocrisy, lying, and acting are brought up directly only a few times in Hamlet, the manifestations thereof can be found throughout the poem, the Dutch prince himself along with the King and the Queen being the embodiment of these ideas. I will prove the above statement by examining the ways in which characters in Hamlet develop and interact with each other. By taking a look at how they change throughout the play, I will spot the instances of lying, acting, and hypocrisy, therefore, making a point.
It could be argued that Hamlet’s descent into madness is a sort of deception implied by the author and, therefore, can be interpreted as a variation on lying. On the one hand, the tormented soul that the lead character could be described as was clearly showcasing the instance of psychological turmoil. On the other hand, the elaborate plan that Hamlet designed in order to take revenge on his murderous uncle and avenge his father evidently showed that Hamlet’s madness was somewhat overstated: “I am but mad north-north-west” (Shakespeare 1460).
In addition, the very concept of staging the performance that would lure the king into fearing the revenge of the prince can be interpreted as an elaborate lie. First and most obvious, the very concept of performance is often rendered as a lie as in the reimagining of the truth through a specific perspective: “‘The Mousetrap.’ Marry, how? Tropically. This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna” (Shakespeare 2131-2132). The quote above points to the fact that the play is the process of reimagining reality and, therefore, in a way, is a combination of a lie and acting. Thus, the environment, which the creation of the play suggests, implies a significant amount of acting.
Weirdly enough, the same element of the poem may also be viewed through the lens of lying. Although the acting is supposed to look as the reimagining of a specific play, it, in fact, creates the veneer of mystery that is supposed to deceive the King and the Queen into being alarmed about their secret being disclosed: “You are welcome: but my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived” (Shakespeare 1457-1458). Despite the fact that the purpose of the play is not explained to the viewers, it clearly plants very specific fears into them, therefore, serving as the means of deceiving them into confessing their crime. In fact, at some point in the development of the plot, Hamlet states directly that deceit is the primary reason for the play to exist in the first place.
Moreover, speaking of the same staging process, the purpose thereof as a disguised attempt at revealing the lies of the murderous King can and should be considered hypocritical (Kafanelos 74-76). At this point, however, one might argue that lies often imply the idea of meanness and, thus, are rendered as something despicable. Hamlet, in his turn, is not typically viewed as the character that would stoop so low as to act in a despicable manner. The above vision of the event, therefore, suggests the interpretation that does not involve lying and, instead, focuses on the concept of revenge. Nevertheless, a closer consideration of the subject matter will reveal that the very phenomenon of acting can be deemed as a form of lying (Williamson 131). Consequently, setting the stage play can be interpreted as the epitome of hypocrisy, acting, and lying in the play. In fact, the very name thereof discloses its purpose as the tool for trapping the king and the Queen with the help of elaborate deceit (Dodsworth 152).
Additionally, apart from setting an elaborate and deliberate trap that will trick them into confessing and paying the price for their murder, the lead character also deceives the Queen as they meet: “My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites” (Shakespeare 2273). It is remarkable, though, that most of the examples above include mostly the elements of deceit and lying, whereas little hypocrisy is involved when Hamlet himself takes certain actions. The observed phenomenon can be attributed to the character design; being the vengeful hero and the troubled soul that Shakespeare saw him, Hamlet could not possibly commit any act of hypocrisy; anything that pointed otherwise would have broken his character and destroyed his credibility (Levy 117). The rest of the characters, however, are oozing with hypocrisy, therefore, contributing to the creation of a unique, very suspenseful, and rather brooding atmosphere (Clemen 221). First and most obvious, the King and the Queen need to be referred to as the core of hypocrisy in the poem, positioning themselves as decorous and decent yet being, in fact, guilty for the death of Hamlet’s father: “My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites; How in my words soever she be shent, To give them never seals, my soul, consent!” (Shakespeare 2273-2275).
Another element of a hypocritical attitude towards life, in general, and the situation that the people in the castle are in, in particular, can be traced to the Prince of Denmark himself. Surprisingly enough, at some point, Hamlet accuses himself of being hypocritical and tampering with the truth: “My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites; How in my words soever she be shent, To give them never seals, my soul, consent!” (Shakespeare 2273-2275). Although the above statement is voiced in anguish, under the spur of emotions, and, therefore, cannot be deemed as the argument against the lead character, the reasons behind his sorrow are rather obvious. Instead of pointing the finger at the treacherous murderer of his father and making him pay the debt, Hamlet resorts to mental gymnastics in order to make justice take its toll (Wells 29). Therefore, the contrivances that he is forced to make are interpreted by the honest lead character as the manifestations of his own hypocrisy.
The actions of Ophelia, whom Hamlet claims to be his “dear sister” (Shakespeare 515), could also be viewed through the lens of lying, hypocrisy, and deceit at the same time. The fact that the lead character confides in her as she knowingly betrays him is the prime example of the combination of the three concepts above: “Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, And keep you in the rear of your affection” (Shakespeare 515-516).
Last but definitely not least, the fact that Hamlet deceits his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to carry his death warrant and practically dooms them to death needs to be brought up as the crowning achievement in the range of hypocritical steps taken by the characters. As it has been stressed above, the mere act of watching Hamlet doing something that does not align with the principles of common morals may distort the reader’s perspective of the character. However, after a thorough analysis of the latter, one must admit that Hamlet, being psychologically traumatized and driven by anger, fear, and despair, should not be judged on the traditional scale of moral dimensions.
Even though the elements of lying, hypocrisy, and acting are not made evident in Hamlet, the poem includes a range of scenes enveloping the concepts of hypocrisy, deceit, and lies, therefore, addressing a range of controversial issues, fratricide, vendetta, and madness is only the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, these are the scenes with Hamlet, the King, and the Queen that shape the notions mentioned above and contribute to their understanding to the greatest degree. Representing the epitome of hypocrisy, lies, and acting, they and every other character in the play contribute to the desperate, dark, and brooding feeling that the play creates.
Clemen, Wolfgang. The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Dodsworth, Martin. Hamlet Closely Observed. New York, NY: A&C Black, 2014, Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Northon Shakespeare (1-130). 3rd ed.
Williamson, Claude C. Readings on the Character of Hamlet: Compiled from over Three Hundred Sources. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Levy, Eric P. Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man. Plainsboro, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2008. Print.
Levy addresses the mythology that presumably created the foundation for the play, connecting the narration by Shakespeare with the events and ideas touched upon, mentioned, or described in religious texts (particularly, in the Bible, as well as in the books written by philosophers, including the ancient ones (e.g., Plato) and the modern ones alike. The author makes it quite clear that, addressing the issues brought up by both the ancient philosophers and his contemporaries, Shakespeare created a deeply philosophical drama that addresses complex timeless issues by setting the characters into a conundrum of lies, acting, and hypocrisy.
Particularly, Levy stresses that the poem is filled with references to the deception that is related to the main characters in one way or another. More to the [point, the author locates the nature thereof, stressing that the concept of deceit is epistemological as opposed to moral. In other words, the traditional battle of good vs. evil is interpreted as a battle between great minds.
Serving as the means of discovering the very nature of deception as a concept in Hamlet, the study carried out by Levi was essential to the further analysis. The connections to the previous theological and philosophical works made it possible to understand the implications made in the poem and identify the elements of the play that showcased the instances of deception in Hamlet. Although the author did not point directly to the scenes in which the phenomenon under analysis emerged, it created prerequisites for their successful discovery.
Kafanelos, Emma. Narrative Causalities. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006. Print.
Kafalenos creates a list of consecutive events that include the instances of lying and deceit in Hamlet, therefore, allowing one to track down the actual stages of deceit development in the play. By outlining the essential dialogues that address the issue of deceit and lying in Hamlet, the author makes a very valid statement concerning the subject matter.
According to Kafalenos, every single act of the play can be split into a succession of small lies that build up to become a grandiose deceit. In other words, as the play progresses, the deviations from the truth that the characters take snowball, making the latter suffer from the dishonesty that they created and got caught in.
The author also addresses the issue of sin as the inevitable outcome of lies. As a result, Kafanelos trails off into a theological debate, also bringing up the issues related to the Christian philosophy and linking them to the essential events in the play. Particularly, Kafanelos mentions Hamlet’s idea of the ghost being the devil and, therefore, urging him to commit a sinful action.
Creating a solid premise for a detailed analysis of Hamlet as a conundrum of lies and deceit, the book allows assuming that there is a pattern to the hypocritical actions of the people involved. In other words, the link between a lie as a distortion of one’s self and a lie as an attempt to invite others to participate in a sinful act can be created. Intriguing and shedding a lot of light on the innuendoes of Hamlet, the book by Kafanelos offers a lot of food for thoughts.
Wells, Stanley. William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.
Wells chooses a rather safe means of addressing the issue of lying, acting, and hypocrisy in Hamlet by focusing on the rest of the characters and their deceitful actions. On the one hand, the above course of analysis aligns with the traditional interpretations of Hamlet. Indeed, most of the acting, lying, and deceit centers around the rest of the characters, whereas the Prince of Denmark is typically viewed as the victim. However, Wells takes very few chances with exploring Hamlet as a character from the perspective of lying, hypocrisy, or even acting. As a result, the outcomes of the analysis seem somewhat flaccid.
Nevertheless, by outlining the environment of deceit and lies that Hamlet is trapped in, Wells does a very good job of analyzing the rest of the characters. Though offering little challenge, the traditional approach to the analysis of the play that Wells adopts serves as the foundation for a further and a more detailed study. Particularly, the fact that aaa needs to be brought up.
Therefore, the book was used primarily as the tool for founding the analysis on. Wells created a solid platform, on which the further assessment of the problem and the identification of the essential details could be built on. The focus on the social isolation that Hamlet was in and that bordered ostracism, Wells allowed the readers understand what the lead character was going through and, thus, understand why he resorted to acting a one of the forms of deception to uncover the lying of his uncle in the first place. Allowing for a deep insight on the character and the turmoil that he was in, the book served as an essential addition to the existing list of sources.
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