Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

The role of lies and deception in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” – Jamie Tuohy

Okay, so this is a question that been overdue for a long time and in many ways, it’s probably one of the most obvious questions to ask about one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. The play is essentially constructed on the grounds of deception. Without deception, there would be no plot. Hamlet would have no antic-disposition, Claudius would be far less interesting, and (loathe me to say it) we probably wouldn’t have Hamlet’s most famous “to be or not to be?” soliloquy. Can you imagine if Hamlet just went ahead and killed Claudius without thinking or vacillating about it? Or worse still, imagine if Claudius sacrificed his “own ambition” and admitted to killing Old Hamlet? IMAGINE IF THERE WAS HONESTY IN THE PLAY??! It just wouldn’t work, would it? One of the reasons Hamlet remains such a fascinating play in the twenty first century is largely down to the theme of DECEPTION. Moreover, the audience become parties to deceptions that the characters of the play are unaware of. I’m not going to give a sample essay on this, because I literally do not have the time (SO MUCH COLLEGE WORK!) but if you look back over all my Hamlet essays on this blog, you will see that you can twist any of them to suit this question. It’s all about you being able to manipulate and apply the information to the question, and this really isn’t a difficult question, once you start to think about it!

  • This is a beautiful question and no student who has prepared sufficiently for the exam should be fazed by it. Think of all the questions you have done: the role of women, the character of Hamlet, and the character of Claudius….All these essays are going to help you in this question and you can draw on all of them.
  • Therefore, this question is no problem to you, because you essentially HAVE IT DONE ALREADY.
  • Let’s look at how we can tackle the question:

The question asks us about LIES and DECEPTION within Hamlet. Before you start, you should MAKE OUT A PLAN AND WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU’RE GOING TOTALK ABOUT IN YOUR ESSAY.


  • When you’re answering a question on THEME, you should write about the play from its beginning. Therefore, ask yourself: are there lies and deception when the play opens?
  • Then, track this theme throughout the play – how does it develop? Do the lies and deception stop? Do they escalate? How is the theme portrayed?
  • Your essay should come to a close by discussing the ending of the play and how that relates to the question. Who gets punished for ‘lying’ and ‘deceiving’?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ONCE YOU KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS, THERE IS NO QUESTION ON THIS EARTH THAT YOU CANNOT HANDLE. I BELIEVE THAT ALL THEME QUESTIONS ARE CHARACTER QUESTIONS, because a theme is expressed through the characters of the play. Here are some brief notes I’ve made up that will hopefully help you with your essay:


  • He is undoubtedly the biggest deceiver in the play. He is the consummate villain and will do anything to get what he wants. Claudius is a usurper and is completely self-motivated.
  • When we are introduced to Claudius, he impresses us a potentially good king. However, his mask of nobility is merely a disguise for his awful crime. Claudius leads Demark through the mourning of Old Hamlet and tactfully balances this grief with the joy of his marriage to his former sister-in-law Gertrude – “with mirth in funeral and dirth in marriage”.
  • However, this isn’t the real Claudius – he is an evil man, culpable of fratricide and regicide. He has killed his brother, out of greed and ambition and “posted with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”, by marrying his dead brother’s wife. Therefore, his position as a good and noble king is thwarted by his lies and deception.
  • As the play progresses, Claudius’ initial act of deceit is only the first of many of many immoral acts he is willing to commit for his own self gain and interest.
  • He has no problem colluding with his “lawful espial” Polonius to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia.
  • He engages in deceit once again when he and Gertrude asks the two “sponges” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to befriend Hamlet to get to the root of his madness.
  • He recognises that “madness in great ones must not unwatched go” and has no problem sending Hamlet toEnglandto be killed.
  • When Hamlet returns fromEngland, Claudius arranges for a duel to take place between the young Danish prince and Laertes. He gives Laertes a sword with “a bated tip”. He also fills a chalice with poison for Hamlet to drink. His methods are callous and underhanded and riddled with lies and defined by deception.


  • “To thine own self be true” – it’s quite ironic that someone as two faced and deceitful as Polonius should say this. He is a character who is full of self importance, and one who attempts to sound erudite and scholarly, but in actual fact, he is really just a man who will do anything to climb the social ladder and is willing to be just as underhanded and deceptive as Claudius is!
  • Shakespeare highlights Polonius’ deception very early on in the play when he sends Reynaldo toParisto spy on his son Laertes and instructs him to “put on him what falsities you will”. He has no problem in engaging in deceit to get what he wants, even when that means tainting his son’s reputation.
  • As I mentioned above, he is referred to as Claudius’ “lawful espial” and doesn’t think twice about helping Claudius to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia’s meeting.
  • He is a complete sycophant. When Hamlet asks him about the weather, he appeases him by lying to him. Hamlet says that it’s cold and then it’s suddenly hot, and each time, “the meddling old fool” agrees with him.
  • His character is defined by deceit and it seems fitting that he should die engaging in it. He arranges to hide behind the arras and observe a meeting between Hamlet and Gertrude, but Hamlet soon becomes enraged and stabs him – perceiving him to be Claudius.


  • “Seems madam? Nay it is; I know not seems”. From the play’s opening, Hamlet, rather ironically and even hypocritically sets himself up as someone who abhors lies, corruption and deceit. He implies that his grief, unlike his “aunt-mother’s” and “uncle-father’s” is genuine. He isn’t simply hiding behind an “inky cloak” to present a picture of grief and mourning to the world.
  • However, he quickly ensues “to put an antic disposition on” after the Ghost informs him that “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears the crown”. He feels that by lying to everyone around him and pretending to be mad, he can unmask Claudius as the murderer. The truth behind his madness is somewhat ambiguous: is it real or fake? Therefore, lying and deceiving becomes a very prominent feature of the Danish prince’s character.
  • Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that Hamlet is simply pretending to be mad and we can see how cunning he can be when he vows “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”.
  • He thinks that by deceiving Claudius and staging a re-enactment of The Mousetrap play, he will be able to guilt-trip Claudius into confessing.
  • Deceit causes Hamlet’s death. He dies after being stabbed by Laertes, but his lies and deceit also cause Ophelia’s death.
  • Hamlet knows that Ophelia is fiercely obedient to her father and if he tells her that his madness isn’t real, then she would undoubtedly tell Polonius and act as a foil to his plans. Therefore, he lies to her and her unrequited love for him causes her to go mad and kill herself.
  • Hamlet is both a victim and perpetrator of deceit.

It would suffice to talk about these three characters in your essay, but if you’ve time, there’s no harm in mentioning ROSENCRANTZ’ AND GUILDENSTERN’S lies – they pretend that they’re friends with Hamlet, when really; they’re only ‘sponges’ to Claudius. Also, the Ghost describes GERTRUDE as his “seeming virtuous queen”, therefore it might be interesting to explore the possibility that Gertrude and Claudius were having an adulterous affair while Old Hamlet was alive.

These are just some of the most obvious examples of deception within the play, but I hope they can help you with your essay. All you have to do is read over all the essays you’ve already done and you will be laughing, because all the information is already in them!

Good Luck,



One thought on “The role of lies and deception in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” – Jamie Tuohy

  1. Jamie Patterson says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I am an Ap student in high school and we just read Hamlet. We have a project due tomorrow and I forgot about it, yikes!!! My project is over the theme deceit and I could not find an angle we hadn’t discussed in class before so thank you! 😁

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