Explore the significance of Shakespeare’s presentation of deceit and acting in ‘Hamlet’. Show how far your appreciation and understanding of this element of ‘Hamlet’ has been informed by your study of ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ and critical readings of both plays.
Acting and deceit prove to be key ingredients to Revenge Tragedy as a genre; the deception of characters in both Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy (Revengers) subsequently accelerating the plays to their respective final catastrophes. The majority of characters in both texts arguably play a part in order to deceive others at some point, creating a dramatic irony that resonates with the audience and adding comedy to an otherwise somber plot, however the complex system of acting and deception creates “an elaborate network of roles and relationships” (Michael Hall) that ultimately generates uncertainty within both the contemporary audience and critics in the modern day. Acting and deceit in Hamlet proves to delay the inevitable, however characters in Revengers deceive others to act as a catalyst, progressing their ambitions and causing the tragic finale to approach at a quicker pace. To a contemporary audience, the latter statement suggests that Revengers would have been more typical of a Revenge Tragedy genre; Hamlet’s intelligent, philosophical character sets him apart from classic Revengers and evokes pathos, however the typically male attitude of Vindice suggests that Revengers would have been the preferred by an Elizabethan audience. Ultimately, the dramatic irony and comedic effect created through acting and deception in both plays serve to lighten the atmosphere of the theatre, “If the quality of humour is important to comedy, it is more so in tragedy, whether in life or theatre” (Sir Herbert Tree), and create uncertainty within the audience as to how far the deception reaches, evoking controversy even in modern viewings.
Acting and deceit are imperative to an Elizabethan Revenge tragedy, and in the case of Hamlet and Revengers, characters tend to feign an alternate persona to escape the consequences of their respective revenge plans. Hamlet simulates a degree of madness in his character in order to deceive the king and his attendants, and thus when he kills Polonius; an act that would have been punishable by death in 1600s England, he is instead shipped off to England, and would have survived the crime unscathed had it not been for Claudius’ letter that was unrelated to the Polonius’ murder. Claudius’ exclamation, “how dangerous it is that this man goes loose!/ Yet must not we put the strong law on him… This sending him away must seem/ Deliberate pause. Diseases desperate grown/ By desperate appliance are relieved,/ Or not at all” reveals through structure-reflected meaning the difficulty faced in sentencing a man with “diseases desperate grown”. The obstruction of “But never the offence” and “Deliberate pause” in the unrhymed iambic pentameter of the monologue reflects the internal struggle of Claudius to bring about Polonius’ justice; the unusual circumstance of Hamlet’s madness usurping the moral code associated with punishment of crimes. “Diseases desperate grown” presents the idea of madness as a physical disease, alluding to 16th century renaissance theorist’s belief in the ‘four humors’; depicting Hamlet’s condition as a disturbance in the four bodily humors and thus Hamlet cannot be blamed for any events that occurred when mad, and Claudius can’t “put the strong law on him”. Taking this into account, Hamlet’s feigned madness effectively relieves him of responsibility for his actions, ultimately using an act to deceive others into viewing him as mentally insufficient and allowing him to enact his revenge plan undetected.
Similarly, Vindice’s plan of vengeance allows him to offload responsibility for the deaths of characters using acts and deceiving others through a second persona. “Vengeance has been personified in the play’s language, and...
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