Dishonesty in Hamlet
“Many critics have suggested Hamlet chronicles the perils of life within a largely false and dishonest world. To what extent has this been your experience of Shakespeare’s play?”
The world we currently know has experienced many stages and eras such as the Renaissance era and the New World Era.
In each of these eras, falsehood, dishonesty, deceit and revenge all seem to grow rich, however remorse and guilt grow poor. Like a domino effect, with all this tremendous falsehood come fatal and destructive dangers in life.
Whether it be due to the risks of overthinking, or perhaps the risks of taking action, they seem to grow exponentially with time. William Shakespeare portrays evidently this changing world and it’s forever increasing perils of deceit throughout the play Hamlet, representing the aftermath of lying and its effects on everything around us, specifically the Great Chain of Being and Nature itself.
The world the audience is shown as they enter Hamlet is stuck in a phase between the Renaissance and New World Era. The men of the Renaissance era were warriors and put trust in themselves, whereas in the New World, more men are thinkers as they have lost a sense of existential trust. This transition is essentially portrayed in the allusion to the story of the Helen of Troy, recited by Hamlet himself in Act 2 Scene 2 where Pyrrhus, a son who vows to avenge his dead father, seeks revenge on his murderer, Priam. Pyrrhus goes on to slay Priam, but before doing so, “like a neutral to his will and matter [does] nothing”. However after this pause, he is able to follow through with his mission.
Pyrrhus hence portrays a true warrior. Similarly, we see in Act 3 scene 3, Hamlet following in Pyrrhus’ legacy to avenge his father, however there is a detrimental difference in Hamlet’s methods. Hamlet, being a thinker from the new world, pauses before striking King Claudius, however he does what Pyrrhus would not dare do – think. Essentially, Hamlet changes what should have occurred, and in turn causes a ripple effect where Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, etc. all die. This ultimately demonstrates how Shakespeare intends to chronicle how as the world changes and becomes less trusting with one’s self, the perils of overthinking life become more and more real and indeed cause the perils of death.
All this change in the world and the ever-increasing deceit add up and cause a significant rupture and destruction of the Great Chain Of Being (GCOB). Where a king should be a descendant of the original king, instead of Hamlet becoming king, Claudius takes his position. Claudius’ crown is an extensive metaphor for a mask he wears in which it makes himself feel much more evocative and powerful, something he is not. Throughout the entire play, Claudius’ life is ultimately an existential lie.
Portrayed through a metaphor used in Hamlet’s conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act 2 Scene 2 that “Denmark’s a prison”, Shakespeare suggests that the city has spiralled into destruction, violence and unlawful sins. Also with the use of the metaphysical appearances of the ghost of Old Hamlet in multiple scenes, the audience is brought to conclude that the dishonesty of King Claudius has inflicted disruption to each and every person in Denmark. Hamlet tells the story of a real life Machiavel and how his villainous actions cause downfall and havoc to all life in Denmark. Ultimately, the anecdote of King Claudius is used to represent how one’s dishonesty to himself, and to everyone around him, create dangers to not only himself, but to nature and society itself.
The idea that lies and deceit cause disturbances to every person’s lives is further enhanced by the use of structure in Hamlet. In almost every scene in which lies are being told (such as Act 2 scene 2 where Hamlet insults Polonius with his lies and where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to lie to Hamlet, and again in Act 3 Scene 2 where Hamlet teaches the players how to act or, in other words, lie, and so forth) the structure changes from Shakespeare’s famous iambic pentameter, to structure less speech.
This use of transitory structures is Shakespeare’s method of metaphors to demonstrate that as people become more and more dishonest, they begin to destroy the unadulterated harmony of life and how its sequences should play out, pushing it into madness and confusion. Shakespeare attempts to portray to his audience his idea that the more lies and dishonesty, the more the perils of causing death and destroying the true sequence of events that are meant to be followed, falling back on the idea of disturbances of the GCOB.
An old myth states that if you keep making faces as the wind changes, your face will remain that way. Analysing this further, if you wear a mask in many different situations, you soon begin to wear that mask forever. Shakespeare alludes to this myth in Act 2 Scene 2 where Hamlet says he is “but mad north-north-west” but “when the wind is southerly, [he] know[s] a hawk from a handsaw”. In Act 1 Scene 5, Hamlet states how he will “put on an antic disposition”, in other words put on a metaphorical mask whenever he is around those he does not trust. Shakespeare’s allusion to the myth suggests that if Hamlet continues to act like someone he is not, he will remain that way – he will remain to be crazy.
Essentially, Hamlet’s dishonesty with himself and with those around him foreshadows his downfall, and, ultimately, his death. By alluding to the myth in one scene, and portraying how Hamlet is indeed wearing this mask as the wind changes in another scene, it can be extracted that Shakespeare intended to show a developing story of the dangers of lying and wearing masks to cover up the truth. If in your own world, you must lie to yourself, and continuously lie and deceive yourself, indeed you will remain that way, and henceforth lead on to much more fatal things such as becoming permanently insane.
This notion of wearing masks to cover up one’s true identity is evident throughout the course of Hamlet. It is again seen where Polonius hides himself behind an arras in Act 3 Scene 4, spying on Hamlet and his mother’s conversation. Essentially, Polonius’ choice to hide behind an arras and lead himself into dishonesty unravels and causes him to be accidentally murdered. The demonstration of the consequences of lying and deceiving is genuinely strong here, where it does not lead to simply madness nor pain, but the worst punishment of our current world – death. This irreversible consequence demonstrates the desperation of Shakespeare to get his message across that with lying and dishonesty, there is a chain reaction and it may possibly lead to death, ultimately the greatest peril of life.
There is a specific order in which the world works, and when one lies, or deceives those around them, indeed they denature the destined sequence of events in life. In doing so they form a sense of confusion and cause even more dishonesty with everyone around them. In conjunction with the above, it is overly simplistic to conclude that William Shakespeare depicts the ever-increasing dishonesty and deceitfulness throughout Hamlet and in turn successfully and evidently chronicles the consequences and aftermath of these sinful actions.
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