The correlation between the morality of the king and the body politic has been compromised because Claudius is nothing more than a ruthlessly ambitious usurper. He has no legal or moral legitimacy to the throne. His deception is mirrored in the body politic through self-seeking characters like Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius. Like the opportunistic Claudius these are characters who want to get ahead in life in terms of money, power and prestige. Claudius’ deception is the catalyst for further deceptions that result in further destruction in the play. This state of moral and social anarchy is evoked in phrases such as ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ and ‘tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely’ and the description of Claudius himself as ‘this canker of our nature’.
Claudius is a ruthless Machiavellian opportunist who killed his own brother and married his widow. The Ghost alludes to Claudius’ deception in his use of serpentine imagery: ‘The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown’. Hamlet refers to Claudius’ deception and duplicity of character in his description of him as a ‘smiling damned villain’.
It would appear initially that deception is something advantageous to Claudius. His duplicitous character allows him to get ahead and rule Denmark with consummate ease. His mendacity and ability to tell little white lies or to bend the truth make Claudius an effective king. He appears diplomatic and amenable to everyone, even the officious and verbose Polonius, whom he is able to employ in order to spy on Hamlet.
We see how Claudius is able to deceive Laertes by manipulating him for his own ruthless purpose. Hamlet is posing a great threat to Claudius’ reign but Claudius is quite content to let Laertes get rid of Hamlet for him. He deceptively tells Laertes: ‘I loved your father’ and that he is outraged that Hamlet has murdered him. He deceives Laertes by convincing him that it is almost his duty to seek vengeance. He asks Laertes whether or not he loved his father: ‘Laertes, was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,/A face without heart?’
Then Claudius surreptitiously asks Laertes the following question: ‘What would you undertake/To show yourself your father’s son in deed/More than in words? When Laertes responds: ‘To cut his throat i’ the church’ Claudius is delighted as he knows he can use Laertes in a new piece of deception. Claudius praises Laertes: ‘Now you speak like a good child and true gentleman’. He deceptively tells Laertes that he must not get involved because of the great love that Hamlet’s mother bears him. However, we see the destructive nature of deception here as the reckless but well-intentioned Laertes is prepared to kill a former friend by deceptive means.
Laertes’ nobility of character is vitiated because he has stooped to such deceptive chicanery. The fencing match is nothing more than a charade. It is a piece of dissemblance, designed to hide the attempt on Hamlet’s life. However, Laertes pays a Pyrrhic price for his deception, openly acknowledging to Hamlet that he got what he deserved: ‘I am justly killed by mine own treachery’
Claudius’ propensity towards deception is not only directed at other characters in the play. Indeed Claudius is not immune to practising self-deception on himself. He had convinced himself that if he killed his brother, he would have everything that he wanted. However in the Prayer scene, Claudius struggles with his conscience and his own deception. The Prayer scene is a pivotal moment of clarity, insight and honesty for Claudius as he confronts the reality of his situation. He struggles with the lies that he told himself. He is well aware of the immorality of his crime: ‘O my offence is rank; it smells to heaven’. He hopes that he may be pardoned but doesn’t fool himself into believing that he would relinquish the fruits of his crime: ‘May one be pardon’d and still retain the offence?’ He knows that he may evade justice here but he will be held accountable for his crimes eventually: ‘In the corrupted currents of this world/ Offence’s gilded hand may shove past by justice…….. but ‘tis not so above’. Claudius knows that his deceptions are destructive and will lead to his spiritual ruin. His proclivity towards lying has put him on the road to spiritual damnation and this is something he cannot evade. His deceptions are responsible for the deaths of others and this is something that he must eventually face up to.
The destructive aspect of deception is further underscored by characters such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Like King Hamlet, Hamlet employs serpentine imagery to convey the duplicitous nature of his fulsome friends. They are ‘adders-fanged’, ‘sponges’ that ‘soak up the king’s rewards, countenances and authorities’. They deceptively pose a Hamlet’s friends in order to ‘glean’ what they can from Hamlet’s melancholy so they can ingratiate themselves with Claudius. They are obsequious sycophants who try to deceive Hamlet into a false confidence. However, their deception serves only to destroy what was once a loving and sincere friendship. Hamlet challenges their deception by asking them to play a pipe. He accuses them of trying to play on him and manipulate him: ‘Why look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops: you would pluck out the heart of my mystery’. Hamlet rewards their deception and perfidy by sending them to their deaths. Hamlet indifferently remarks that: ‘why they did make love to their employment’.
Another creature of deception and duplicity is Polonius. He is an officious old man, who makes everyone’s business, his business. He is a sententious character, hypocritically preaching to Laertes when he is just about ready to embark for France: ‘Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice’ and ‘to thy own self be true’. However, Polonius is a deceptive hypocrite. He pays Reynaldo to tell lies about Laertes and spread rumours about him. Polonius has no moral qualms about casting aspersions on his son’s reputation: ‘I’ll lay it a fetch of your warranty you laying these slight sullies against my son’.
As an obsequious sycophant, Polonius is quite happy to use his daughter Ophelia as ‘bait’ in order to eavesdrop on what should be a private conversation between two lovers. Furthermore, he encourages his daughter to take part in this deceptive charade. This is deplorable behaviour from a man who sententiously advises his son ‘to thine own self be true’. The only person that his obsequious sycophant is true to is himself. He is a self-absorbed character, masquerading as a concerned and loving father. We are made aware of the destructive aspect of deception as Polonius becomes enmeshed in his own web of deceit. Polonius pays a Pyrrhic price for being an officious busybody as Hamlet kills him. If Polonius had not be spying on Gertrude and Hamlet, then Hamlet would not have had the opportunity to mistake him for Claudius: ‘I took you for your better’.
Even the noble idealistic youth Hamlet becomes embroiled in this world of lies and duplicity. Hamlet is forced to espouse an ‘antic disposition’ as part of his role as the play’s malcontent. Hamlet’s feigned madness is a type of sprezzatura, a defensive form of irony that allows him to impugn the corruption, hypocrisy and ostentation of the Danish court. Hamlet is forced to appear mad because he is not free to speak his mind against the king: ‘O break my heart for I must hold my tongue’. Hamlet asserts that ‘to be honest as this world goes is to be one man plucked out of ten thousand’. However, we are cognisant of the destructiveness of this deception on Hamlet as he is made to feel like a ‘whore, must unpack my heart with words, and fall a-cursing like a drab, a scullion’. Hamlet’s feigned madness wounds his mother’s as she begs him to stop: ‘O Hamlet! Thou has cleft my heart in twain’. This destructive lie on Hamlet’s part only serves to compound the growing distance between Hamlet and his mother.
In conclusion, the theme of deception and its destructive power is an integral part of the play. The play is quite didactic in this regard as it makes the audience cognisant of the destructive harm of lies that we tells ourselves and others. This theme is interesting, thought-provoking and very relevant especially when we compare it with Netflix series such as ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘House of Cards.’