"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Deception As a Means of Control

Woven into the tapestry of Shakespeare's Hamlet are threads of deception and lying. From the opening revelation of the ghost of Hamlet's father to the fatal dual that brings death in the final scene, deception and subterfuge are what make the play so intriguing. Almost all the characters are involved in some act of deception. Their motives are different but in each case deception is used in order to gain control of people or situations.

The villain Claudius is a prime illustration of a character using deception to gain control over people and situations in the play. His is the most far reaching deception. By secretly assassinating his brother the king, Claudius hoodwinks the entire nation of Denmark. By lying to the nation about the cause of his brother's death, he is able to installs himself as king, thereby effectively controlling the entire nation. This massive act of deception puts him in control of the people and situations around him.

But Claudius's deceptions don't stop there. In attempts to control his nephew and stepson Hamlet, he employs spies and dissimulation. Enlisting the service of Hamlet's old school fellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies, the king at first wants to secretly find out what is bothering Hamlet and, presumably, what will restore him to sanity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's subterfuge is quickly sniffed out by the canny Hamlet who says to them:
“You were sent for, and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to color” (Act 2. ii. 294-296).

Failing with this method, Claudius hatches a more sinister plan to once and for all eliminate Hamlet. Pretending to send Hamlet on a diplomatic voyage to England but really intending to have him executed upon arrival is Claudius's way of reasserting his power in the face of a threatening Hamlet. When this plan doesn't work due to some counter spying on Hamlet's part, Claudius resorts to deception yet again in contriving a sword match between Laertes and Hamlet. To remain in control of the situation he instructs Laertes to use an envenomed sword against Hamlet and poisons a cup of wine. The goal of all these deceptive and villainous measures is the same as all Claudius's actions: to remain in control.

Claudius is far from the only one practicing deception in the play. Working hand in glove with the king is Polonius, the royal adviser. In on the most intimate details of Hamlet's life, Polonius is not only privy to all the king's schemes but has a few tricks up his own sleeve as well. Using his daughter as a spy he fakes “accidental” encounters between Hamlet and Ophelia, all the while eavesdropping on their conversations. Directly, this allows him to remain in control of his daughter's future; indirectly, this helps strengthen his position as advisor to the king.

Another episode sheds light not only on Polonius's desire for control but also the use of deception throughout the play. Wishing to know if his absent son is behaving himself, Polonius tells a servant to make up imagined faults for his son Laertes and, by dropping them in conversation, see if anyone agrees that he indulges in these sins. In this way:
“Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth; and... With windlasses and with assays of bias, By indirections find directions out” (Act 2. i 69-72).
To put it in different words, the suggestive lies will draw the truth out of Laertes's unsuspecting acquaintances.

This type of deception, whose sole existence is to discover the truth, is another thread in the tapestry of deception whereby characters attempt to gain a superior edge of knowledge in order to feel in control of their situations. The title character of the play, prince Hamlet, is famous for using this type of deception. Hamlet fakes his own madness in order to get at the truth of his father's murder. As he tells his friend Horatio: “I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (Act 2. v. 196-197). The disguise of madness will allow him to uncover his uncle's secret—or so Hamlet hopes. Just how the semblance of madness will help him is not clear.

Suspicious that the ghost may also be a deceiver sent to snare him with a lie (in fact the ghost is one of the few who are honest) Hamlet thinks up a further deception to get at the truth.
“...I'll have grounds More relative than this. The plays the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King” (Act 2. ii. 611-613).
Utilizing the make-believe fictions of a group of traveling players, Hamlet hopes to trick the King into betraying his part in the murder of his father. This is a clever twist on the motif of deception depicted throughout Hamlet. Not nearly as sinister as the deadly lies of Claudius, still, the actors spend their careers pretending for a living. All actors, it must be admitted, want to manipulate and control the audience they perform for. It is a part of the art and the way they make their plays successful. Actors try to deceive to bring pleasure, enjoyment, or catharsis; Hamlet wants to use the actors to bring his uncle misery, guilt, and a different sort of catharsis: a purgation in the form of a confession. He does this through the pretend--and therefore deceitful--script that the actors follow.

The supporting role that Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, and the players have in the circle of deception has been touched on already. All of these, either for their own ends or at the command of another, are caught up in the lies and deception at Elsinore Castle. One last character who deepens the darkness of deception at Elsinore is Hamlet's mother Gertrude. What role she may have had in the death of her first husband is left unclear. Certainly if she were complicit in his death, hers would be one of the most horrendous acts of deceit in the play. What is clear is that she is no stranger to the intrigues of court life. Acting in unison with Claudius and Polonius in the spying upon her son, she shows herself an expert in deception.

It is no wonder that “Elsinore” has become a slang term for deception and intrigue. Each of the characters at Elsinore Castle desire to control events or learn something through deceiving others. They wish to be in charge of their own destiny by this control. But in the end, all their plotting and scheming not only cannot save them, it strangles them with the very cords they have intended for others. Hamlet is right to deny Rosencrantz's flippant remark that, “the world's grown honest” (Act 2. ii. 254). As everyone learns in Shakespeare's masterpiece of deception, it hasn't.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington Square Press-Simon and Schuster, New York. 1970.


Anonymous said...

Do you have the Hamlet movie? I remember when we first watched it many many years ago and now that I'm older, I actually understand it. :)
We have the one with Mel Gibson.

Brian Carpentier said...

I watched some of the Kenneth Branagh version on youtube. It is set in the 19th. century but it was almost word for word. I thought it was pretty good but I haven't seen the Mel Gibson version--or any other--to compare it with.