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Betrayla and Self Betrayal in Hamlet

By vanessacook May 07, 2010 3352 Words
Betrayal and Self-Betrayal in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

One on the many recurring themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that of betrayal; in fact, it is less of a theme and more of a sociopathic vocation for many of the characters! If drawn as a schematic the betrayals are a veritable labyrinth of double-crossings, falsehood and moral dereliction that pervade the play almost from the opening act. Claudius initiates it all by betraying his brother and murdering him, Polonius betrays his daughters trust by using her as bait to sound out Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray Hamlet by reporting his actions to Claudius, Gertrude betrays Claudius in agreeing to plot with Hamlet against him and the list goes on! I found but a few of these betrayals complex and interesting enough to write about and I chose them for their ability to offer a different view as well as reveal a few embedded ironies in the play. In the beginning of the play we find a mournful Hamlet brooding over his mother Gertrude’s betrayal of his father’s memory and the love they shared. The fact that she married his uncle rankles him even more, as he sees her as having also betrayed the law and ‘acceptable social norms’ or codes of moral ethics by marrying ‘incestuously’. Edwards describes this as ‘the undermining of an ideal of the person enshrined in antiquity and law.” (Page 42 - Hamlet Prince of Denmark by Shakespeare. Editor Philip Edwards. Cambridge Press Updated Edition.2006 and further mentioned in Exploring Shakespeare. Study guide for ENN207-N. Editor Michael Williams. Contributor: Ivan Rabinowitz ) Gertrude’s betrayal is elevated to unbearable levels of vileness after the visit by the Ghost of King Hamlet; when Hamlet realises that his mother not only married his father’s killer (albeit that she was unaware of this at the time), but she also had an affair with him during the marriage. The affront to Hamlet is on many levels. Firstly, his personal horror at her betrayal (the affair) of someone he loves and admires above any other, in favour of a morally corrupt psychopath who is capable of killing his own brother (here his personal fealty and loyalty to his father is shown). Secondly his outrage at her betrayal of the inviolable laws of marriage (here we see the moral and principled character of Hamlet). Hamlet is further tortured by Gertrude’s betrayal of his father’s own good opinion of her; the ghost of King Hamlet conveys in words and lamentation the wretchedness he feels in the betrayal of this perfect idealistic vision he had of his wife and their marriage. He calls Gertrude, “my most seeming virtuous queen,” (1.5.46) which tells us that he had believed her to have been something she was not, a now obliterated image that can never be repaired. All of this seething sense of betrayal is borne out in the few enraged lines Hamlet hurls at Gertrude after the killing of Polonius. He accuses her of: “Such an act that blurs the grace and blush of modesty, [a reference to her lack of decorum] Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose from the fair forehead of an innocent love [scorns decency and destroyed his father’s good opinion, a mockery of their love] And sets a blister there, [the festering pain of his father/ a reference to Claudius as a blister on Denmark] makes marriage vows

As false dicers oaths.’ [reference to her disregard for the sacredness of marriage vows and worthlessness of her word] -(3.4.40-45)

And so the floodgate opens on a torrent of engulfing betrayals. Hamlet sees Ophelia as having betrayed their relationship by rejecting him; he does not know it is at her father Polonius’s insistence that she does; he thinks she no longer cares for him. Perhaps, being the ‘obedient son’ himself; Hamlet may not have considered this a betrayal if he had been privy to the conversation between Polonius and Ophelia. As noted by Ian Johnson, [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. there is much eavesdropping in the play yet little that in anyway benefits Hamlet! The irony here lies in the fact that it is not her ‘repelling’ of Hamlet in this scene that manifests her betrayal of him. …2/.

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Ophelia only truly betrays Hamlet when she allows herself to be used by Polonius and Claudius in their determination to uncover the source of Hamlets ‘madness’. She knows they are spying on Hamlet yet she plays her part in the scheme, never letting on that they are eavesdropping. Hamlet, wanting to exact his revenge for her perceived betrayed and rejection, and wanting to cement his ‘descent into madness’ ruse, begins to unleash his vitriol on Ophelia. He sets about laying the foundation by speaking in direct contradictions “I did love you once.” (3.1.114) and almost immediately, “I loved you not.” (3.1.117). He calls her father a ‘fool’ and curses woman; accusing them making ‘monsters’ of the men they marry. In return for her loyalty to her father in rejecting and baiting Hamlet, he has now betrayed her. In this feigned madness Hamlet is also able to ‘betray’ or deceive Polonius into thinking his madness stems from his grief over the loss of Ophelia’s love. He is not however, lucky enough to convince Claudius of the same thing. In fact, Hamlet ironically though unintentionally betrays his own true intent (to be a threat to Claudius) and the danger is immediately evident to Claudius, who, realizing Hamlet is a loose cannon, says: “There’s something in his soul

O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do not doubt the hatch and disclose
Will be some danger; which for to prevent,
I have quick determination.”

Hamlet, albeit unknowingly; has betrayed himself to Claudius who is now acutely aware of the threat Hamlet poses and is quick to protect himself by hatching a plan to send him off to England, to the near- fatal detriment of Hamlet. This is a rather shallow example of ‘self-betrayal’ in Prince Hamlet as a theme of the play as it does not happen with intent. Hamlet’s capacity for self-betrayal far outreaches these innocuous blunders and stretches all the way to a ‘premeditated deconstruction’ of Self, which I will now explore .

Much of literary discourse on Hamlet has centered on his inability to commit the act of revenge his father’s ghost has asked of him. As Ian Johnson [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC] discusses, many have pondered Hamlet’s reasoning; is it moral dilemma, cowardice, procrastination or merely lack of opportunity? Despite these many offerings not one of the sources Ian Johnson quotes (names such as E.E Stoll, Dover Wilson, Coleridge and even Goethe) considers that Hamlet’s, delay may be due to a calculated act on his part. There is no refuting the fact that he certainly faces a moral quandary; he must kill Claudius to avenge his father’s death. All we know of Hamlet points to this act being at variance with his character (here the likes of Goethe do agree that Hamlet is in a sense, ‘too good for this world’ [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC]. But amongst all these scholars, none gives credit to the intellect of Hamlet. That he is good we know, but s an intellectual, educated Prince, he would know that of himself too! So how does a man of moral and intellectual capacity such as Hamlet, overcome his instinct to commit what is essentially a crime, albeit to avenge his father’s murder? It is in this internal conflict that the naissance of Hamlet conscious attempt at self-betrayal begins to take shape. Hamlet’s delay (apparent inability) is actually the time he uses to ‘change himself’ into the person capable of the task he is faced with. The delay is not indecision; the text substantiates the fact that this is the time Hamlet uses to knowingly and systematically betray his own true nature. Let us start by looking at the catalyst, (the scene where Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost) to discover where Hamlet’s decision to ‘betray his self’ is conceived. Before revealing the crimes committed against him the ghost tells Hamlet:

“My hour is almost come
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.”

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Hamlet is horrified that this is the fate of his father, and despite the ghosts adage to “Pity me not” (1.5.5), it is unimaginable that any child would not be fraught with grief at the thought of a parents suffering. The ghost then goes on to say:

“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.”

And he is just getting started! Hamlet is not yet aware of the nature of the crimes to which the ghost speaks ; yet he is already beside himself; unable to string more than three coherent words together since the ghost appeared. The ghost still does not reveal his meaning; not until after he has delivered the final dose of emotional blackmail:

“List, List, oh list!
If thou didst ever thou dear father love-“

Hamlet, close to catatonic with grief at this juncture can merely exclaim, “O God!” (line1.5.24). It is only then that the ghost goes on to unveil the heinous crime that was committed. He paints a seditious and depraved picture of Claudius and Gertrude’s betrayal and beseeches Hamlet:

“If thou hast nature in thee bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.”

He effectively tells Hamlet that if he has any sense of right and wrong or good and evil and an iota of accompanying loyalty he will do as his father commands or have to live with the fact that he, Hamlet, has not only condemned his own father to eternal fire but allowed Denmark to sink to nothing more than a den of iniquity. This father knows his son well; and in order to push Hamlet past all that he holds to be righteous, true and moral he has coerced him with images he knows will send Hamlet into apoplectic rage. A rage, he hopes that will serve to blind Hamlet to all else but the task at hand…

So the scene is set for Hamlet’s greatest dichotomy; can he overcome his morals and values to show his loyalty and love for his father (by committing a crime) and save him from eternal purgatory? His response to the fading apparitions words, “Remember me,” (1.5.91), (not forgetting that Hamlet now knows his father will spend the daylight hours ‘confined to fast in fires,’) (1.5.11); gives enormous insight into Hamlet’s plan:

“Remember thee?
Ay thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat [memory likened to loyalty] In this distracted globe. [immoral, avaricious world] Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all the trivial fond records, [any memories that may soften his heart and prevent him from his father’s quest] All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, [all accepted thinking, all codes of conduct, all previous loyalties and beliefs] That youth and observation copied there, [borne out of naivety and when the world was righteous, his father’s time] And thy commandment all alone shall live…” [Hamlet all but says he will put aside the 10 Commandments of God to bring all to bear on the grisly task of retribution] -(1.5.95-102)

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It is this speech by Hamlet that clearly conflicts with many of the opinions put forward by scholars in the essay by Ian Johnston [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. ] who quotes scholars that believe Hamlet was confused by his own inability to act, and rants because he cannot act. Hamlet was not confused as the above speech clearly proves, he rants so that he CAN act. Hamlet was preparing himself; he makes a lucid decision to ‘deconstruct’ all that he is made of. Herein lays the very essence of the grand plan that Hamlet devises to betray his true nature, his ‘self’, and become that which was previously abhorrent to him in order to perform this pernicious mandate. He makes this ‘manic’ speech long after the vision is gone. He plunges forward with his diatribe, he presses onward in an amplified ‘blind hatred’; vilifying his mother, recalling his uncles crimes. Is this just grief? Are we to believe that the Prince of Denmark is so out of his wits that nothing he says should be considered in any way contrived and purposeful? I think not. I see this as the moment of Hamlet’s dawning realisation that he is not up to the task his father has set him; and he rants on in order to push himself beyond the boundaries of his morals and values. It is Hamlet’s true nature to be loyal not vengeful, the irony is that he now has to vengeful to prove he is loyal to the only person he still cares about, his father. His tirade (like the sinister concoctions of a Dr Jekyll of sorts), are the formulae Hamlet uses to try and access his ‘other’ self and betray his true self. Although manic apparent, this speech is a deliberate measure on the part of Hamlet to begin his ‘deconstruction of self’. His auxiliary plan to ‘feign madness’ is, to my mind, his invention of the ‘alter ego’ (his own Mr. Hyde) that he must manifest in order to fulfill his father’s diktat. Hamlet consciously begins to weave the web that is vital to his metamorphosis into the harbinger of Claudius’s doom. Yet despite his best efforts and torturous, self-inflicted guilt; Hamlet is unable to bring himself to right the injustice in the way his father has decreed. We find him constantly haranguing himself on the subject throughout the play; swinging from the quiet, desolate introspection of the, “To be, or not to be,” soliloquy (3.1.56), to the crazy scheming of the ‘Play within the Play’ and the desperate dementia of the, “Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” (3.4.91-2) indictment of his mother. Hamlet tries every way possible to accomplish his quest for self-betrayal, his orchestrated descent into the pit of madness; where he could relinquish responsibility for his actions to his ‘other self’. Even on arriving back in Denmark after Claudius’s failed attempt to bring about his demise; Hamlet is still unable to galvanize into action in the face of this affront. Rather he censures himself over Ophelia’s death and becomes all introspection. It is at this juncture that we see the definitive sign of Hamlet ‘giving up’ his attempt to betray his ‘self’. He turns rather to contemplation of a ‘higher power’ and states philosophically to Horatio; ‘Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well

When our deepest plots do pall, and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,”
And in that succinct sermon, Hamlet finally admits that he is not the one who will change the destiny of Denmark, Claudius and Gertrude. In that moment he irrefutably relinquishes to God, that which is Gods - the power over Good and Evil. In so doing he acknowledges once more God’s ten commandments and as a necessary consequence, reneges on the oath he swore to his father: “And thy commandment all alone shall live…”



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Hamlet accepts Claudius’s contrived challenge of a duel with Laertes despite his prickling sense of danger, “I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think it how ill all’s here about my heart.” (5.2.185-6). It is the old Hamlet returned that brings on this change, he acquiesces to the fact that he cannot ‘bring down the madness’ to accomplish his mission, despite his efforts. The principled, God fearing Hamlet is more of the mind that: “There is a special providence in the fall of the sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t

to leave betimes? Let be.”
Hamlet has resigned himself; and his sense of impeding danger serves only to make him think that it is ‘the way of things’ being restored. The world is being righted, not at his hand but that of God. Hamlets ‘emotional bloodbath’ has not thus far been the means to achieve the end, and perhaps he now sees this duel as the opportunity to move the battle out of his mind and into the physical realm. I believe that Hamlet, after so long and tormenting a journey, now feels a great sense of relief at the change of battleground. He fears less the wounds of swords than those of conscience. The drama of the duel unfolds and the stage direction tells us that Hamlet, ‘HURTS THE KING’. It is fascinating that even after the murder of his father, the poisoning of his mother and Laertes’s confession that the King is also responsible for the poisonous sword by which Hamlet is imminently to die… HAMLET STILL DOES NOT STRIKE TO KILL! In this profoundly revealing moment we see how desperately Hamlet clings to his moral beliefs. Unlike many scholars quoted by Ian Johnston [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. ], I do not believe that Hamlet is either too weak or too pure in thought to kill Claudius. Hamlet realizes he has failed to reconstruct himself into an avenger. He allows himself to stop the process he purposely set in play. He allows himself to be who he is, a strongly moral man. He chooses to injure with his sword but let Claudius die of the very poison he himself put there. Therefore Claudius dies ‘by his own sword’ so to speak and Hamlet is not the cause of his death, merely the deliverer. Thus Hamlet’s mindful attempt at ‘betrayal of self’ is ultimately undone. He fails to betray his true beliefs and he chooses the moral high ground. Perhaps thankfully Hamlet does not live long enough to torment himself over the implications of upholding his moral beliefs in contravention of the wishes of the only man he truly loved and owed his undying loyalty to.


Assignment 02/ ENN207N/ V. Cook/ 3399-2134

1)Hamlet Prince of Denmark by Shakespeare. Editor Philip Edwards. Cambridge Press Updated Edition.2006 2)Exploring Shakespeare. Study guide for ENN207-N. Editor Michael Williams. Contributors: Various. Published by Unisa. 2006 3)Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare. by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. Revised 2001.

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