Who's there?" (1,I,1), is the opening line of William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, a question asked by a soldier on guard duty. A sentinel starting his midnight shift normally expects to relieve his fellow sentry as usual; yet he still wonders and challenges the identity of his fellow sentry, because he wonders if it may be someone spying. The question displays that there is a need to assure that one is not being deceived. Spying and deception introduce the play and continue to dominate the play, contributing to a major theme of Hamlet. The theme of 'appearance versus reality" is developed through the deception and spying in the play.
The tone of deception is initiated by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, now, the bestial King of Denmark. Claudius' murderous actions are revealed by Old Hamlet's ghost. The visitations explain the background to Denmark's deception. "The serpent that did sting thy father's life/Now wears his crown" (1,V,39-40).
The first speech by Claudius is well organized and is clever enough to conceal his deadly sin which was committed through ambition and possibly lust: Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast.
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts- A witched wit, and gifts that have the power So to seduce! - won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen. (1,V,42-46) On more than one occasion Claudius sends Rosencrants and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet.
Although they are supposed to be Hamlet's schoolmates, Claudius uses them as pawns in his attempt to reveal what Hamlet is doing. Claudius gets Rosencrants and Guildenstern to accompany Hamlet on his way to be killed. Although Claudius states that he loves Hamlet, he arranges for Hamlet to be killed in England. When his original plan is unsuccessful, he schemes a trap for Hamlet to fall into. The guilt from Claudius' deception and spying eventually builds up on him: O 'tis too true.
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience 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! (3,I,49-53) Claudius obtains the crown by corruption and in doing so he is the beginning of the eventual tragedy.
Polonius has many deceptive roles in the play, as well as some warnings concerning this deceit. At first he warns Laertes, who is on his way to school, to trust no one. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be,/ For loan oft loses both itself and friend,/And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." (1,III,75-77). He then warns Ophelia, his daughter, of the trickery Hamlet plays on her in his attempts to fulfill his sexual desires. Polonius is also involved with deceiving others. He sends Reynaldo to spy on his son and even encourages Reynaldo to lie about Laertes to discover the truth: Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth; And thus do we of wisdom and reach, With windlasses and with assays of bias, By indirections find directions out. (2,I,63-66) Later, Polonius admits that he hides his devilish actions. "And pious action we do sugar o'er/The devil himself.". Polonius' life comes to an end when he himself is caught spying on Hamlet with his mother and is stabbed by an impulsive reaction from Hamlet.
Hamlet uses deception as much as the other characters in the play, with the exception that he is trying to set things right. "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right." (1,V,196-197). Hamlet decides to put on an "antic- disposition" to help him accomplish the new purpose in his life - to expose Claudius and get revenge for this father.
Hamlet uses the players to trick Claudius into revealing his guilt. When he is sent to England he reads the letter from the king telling them to kill Hamlet. He then changes the letter to bring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Hamlet realizes that he is victim of Denmark's deceit, so he decides to deceive others to carry through the promise he made to his father.
In Hamlet, the theme appearance versus reality, lingers throughout the play, through deception or spying. Each character in the play is a victim or a victimizer and suffers the consequences, realizing that once deception is started it is never really stopped. The deception comes to an end as does the play, after eight unnecessary deaths, which could have been avoided if it were not for deception and then spying.