Study Guide

Hamlet Lies and Deceit

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Lies and Deceit

Act I, Scene ii

Why seems it so particular with thee?
'Seems,' madam? Nay it is. I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed 'seem,'
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

From his very first scene, Hamlet sets himself up as someone who hates deception and values inner truth above all. Here, he insists that outward appearances (like his "inky" black clothing, sighs, and tears – all the common markers of grief) can't possibly "denote" what's truly inside him. In other words, Hamlet's saying that his anguish and grief over his father's death are far more intense than they appear to the outside world. He's also implying that Gertrude, Claudius, and the rest of the court are totally fake and disingenuous because they don't care about him or his feelings at all and are far too concerned with keeping up appearances.

Act I, Scene iii

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Polonius likes to dish advice, but he sure can't take it. Given Polonius' penchant for spying on his children and Hamlet in order to curry favor with King Claudius, he's not in any position to be talking about truth.

Act I, Scene v
The Ghost

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine.
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So, lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Like Hamlet, the ghost dwells on Gertrude's "seeming" virtue. But is the ghost saying Gertrude cheated on him when they were married? Or, does the ghost merely see her remarriage as a betrayal? We get stuck on the meaning of "adulterate," which, in Elizabethan England could refer to a cheating spouse or any sexual sin in general (like incest). Either way, the ghost implies that Gertrude's remarriage retroactively makes their marriage into a sham.


O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark.

Well, duh. The only question is, which kind of smile is your villain using—the Cheshire Cat Grin? The Sideways Smile? Or—we imagine this is Claudius' favorite—the Psychotic Smirk?

Act II, Scene i

Marry, sir, here's my drift,
And I believe it is a fetch of wit.
You laying these slight sullies on my son,
As 'twere a thing a little soiled i' th' working,
Mark you, your party in converse, him you would
Having ever seen in the prenominate crimes
The youth you breathe of guilty, be assured
He closes with you in this consequence:
'Good sir,' or so, or 'friend,' or 'gentleman,'
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country—

What was that about honesty, again? Here, Polonius instructs his servant to spread rumors about his son Laertes in the hopes of finding out what the boy's up to. Obviously, this way of thinking has some major flaws—but this is actually pretty much the same method Hamlet uses to find out whether or not the ghost is telling the truth about Claudius. Hm.

Act II, Scene ii

You were sent
for, and there is a kind of confession in your looks
which your modesties have not craft enough to
color. I know the good king and queen have sent for

The force (of sensing deception) is strong in this one: Hamlet's old friends try to deceive him, but Hamlet sees right through it.


At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him.
[To the King.] Be you and I behind an arras then.
Mark the encounter:

Oh, look, it's Polonius again. Here, he's colluding with the King to deceive Hamlet—and it ends up getting him killed. We can't feel too sorry.

Act III, Scene i

[aside] O, 'tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my
The harlot's cheek beautied with plast'ring art
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!

Unlike Polonius, Claudius knows that all his scheming might catch up with him in the end. What's interesting about this passage is the way his sexist remarks align his own deception with the use of cosmetics. The king compares his "painted word[s]" (every lie he tells) to the way a "harlot" "plasters" her face with makeup. It sounds like, in Hamlet's world, women are fundamentally deceptive.

Act III, Scene ii

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, you would sound me
from my lowest note to the top of my compass; 
and there is much music, excellent voice, in this
little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood,
do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?
Call me what instrument you will, though you can
fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to get Hamlet to confide in them, Hamlet is super ticked off. He compares deception to playing a musical instrument to mock his frenemies for not being skilled enough to "play" him. Oh, and guess what? Their deception ends up getting them killed, too.

Act V, Scene ii

An earnest conjuration from the King,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should stiff her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many suchlike ases of great charge,
That, on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allowed.
So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to 't.
(5.2.43-52; 63)

Hamlet is patting himself on the back pretty strenuously about how he got revenge on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by sending them to their deaths. Totally fair, he says: they deceived him, so they get what they deserve.


I am justly killed with mine own treachery.

Well, that about sums it up: like every other deceptive character, Laertes dies because of that deception. Shmoop out.


[…] Where's your father?

At home, my lord.

Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may
play the fool no where but in 's own house. Farewell.

When Hamlet confronts her, Ophelia lies to him outright—but she has no choice. As an unmarried daughter, she has to obey her father's order to help him catch Hamlet. And it ends up killing her, just like it kills him.

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