The Theme of Spying in Hamlet
Within Hamlet, there is an intricately interconnected subterfuge of deceit, much of which stems from the act of spying. Throughout the play the audience is left confused by the protagonist’s erratic behaviour and the conspiring of numerous other characters, mostly from Claudius’ command, against the title character. Despite the fact that it is Hamlet
himself who introduces the theme of spying, intending for his “antic disposition” to serve as a method of shielding his true nature from the King, he also appears to suffer severe repercussions from the deception and uncertainty that is rife within the play. This results in Hamlet’s true mental state becoming a matter of intense debate for the audience.
In one of the early ironies of the play, Hamlet’s antic disposition, though intended to alleviate suspicion of his actions, only serves to confuse the King and inspire his decision to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies against his nephew. The King’s observation that Hamlet’s behaviour resembles “more than his father’s death” not only shows Claudius as an astute character, but also hints at a concealed fear that he may have towards the protagonist. At this early stage of the play, however, the audience has no means of deciphering the King’s true nature, as he is yet to reveal his guilt and the Ghost is
an uncertain figure, shrouded in an ethereal mystery. The audience remains aware of Horatio’s warning to Hamlet that the Ghost may have an ulterior intent. Horatio even states
to Hamlet that the ghost may intend to “draw you into madness”, and this line in particular
reverberates in the audiences’ minds as they see Hamlet descend into an undecipherable lunacy. Furthermore, the stygian imagery which the Ghost utilises, such as the repetition of “foul, strange and unnatural”, does not represent the language that the audience would
expect of the deceased King Hamlet – instead hinting that the ghost is a deceitful figure.
Even Hamlet concludes, in his soliloquy in 2.2, that “The spirit that I have seen may be a
de’il”. Therefore, even the earliest act of spying within the play, Hamlet’s “antic disposition” has unnerved the audience’s perceptions of the play, and combined with the
plethora of disease imagery that Shakespeare attributes to the “rotten” state of Denmark, he
has successfully imbued the play with an ominous atmosphere.
Shakespeare also creates uncertainty in the audience through two subsequent acts of spying from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and later Ophelia. The fact that these characters, who should be trusted allies of the protagonist, act against Hamlet, means that he becomes even more fragile, and cannot serve as the traditional noble Shakespearean protagonist for the audience to rely upon during a convoluted period of the play. Instead, Hamlet is unnerved by the spying in the play to an even greater extent than the audience, with Ophelia’s betrayal solidifying Hamlet’s prior denunciation of womankind whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s betrayal leaves Horatio as the only character in the play
around whom Hamlet behaves in a rational manner. The redeeming factor at this stage is that Claudius’ conniving actions, using acquaintances of Hamlet as devices through which he can spy on the title character, ensures that the audiences’ disdain continues to be
directed towards him while Hamlet is viewed sympathetically, giving the play a definite antagonist, even if the King’s guilt remains unproven.
Many of Hamlet’s actions in the play, most notably his murder of Polonius and
stoical sentencing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death, reinforce his role as an
atypical protagonist; however, specifically with the latter of these actions, the audience do not condemn Hamlet’s behaviour. Hamlet’s prior relationship with Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern is only briefly evidenced in the play, when he enthusiastically greets them as his “excellent good friends”. Like the brief mentions of the title character as a “noble mind”, we rarely see Hamlet embody this characteristic, and likewise Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not act as friends towards Hamlet. This suggests that their role as spies, like Hamlet’s own “antic disposition”, is responsible for their changed behaviour. Hamlet
soon behaves more confrontationally towards his friends, forcing them to confess the true nature of their visit, noting that “there is a kind of confession in your eyes” in a line that parallels Claudius’ insightful understanding of Hamlet’s own madness. By the end of the play, Hamlet becomes totally disconnected from the friendship they once shared, and stoically sentences them to death, stating that “they are not near my conscience”. Although
the audience do still support the protagonist, they are partially taken aback by his apparently callous attitude towards death here, and when he dispassionately tells Polonius to “take thy fortune”. His earlier musings and attitude on death, exemplified in his
soliloquy in Act 3 scene 1 in which he deeply contemplates suicide, have experienced a volte-face. Hamlet’s erratic attitudes and behaviours are the reason that the audience struggle to relate to and fully connect with the lead character, and many of these changed attitudes are as a result of the spying that occurs within the play.
Hamlet’s views on womankind, which are first made evident in 1.2 when he
denounces the gender as a result of his mother’s actions, also appear to fluctuate as the play continues. In Act 3 scene 1, Hamlet’s aggressive attitude towards Ophelia is partially attributed to his statement in his first soliloquy, “Frailty, thy name is woman”, however this contradicts his attitude around Ophelia in 2.1. In this scene, Hamlet does not appear aggressive, rather showing a regretful abandonment of his love for Ophelia, displaying physical characteristics typical for a Shakespearean character who is grief-stricken with love, and the phrase “he let me go” almost symbolises Hamlet’s reluctance to discard his love for Ophelia. After Gertrude partially redeems herself for her actions, admitting fault in her deeds, reaffirming her loyalties to Hamlet and most importantly ceasing to be deceitful to the protagonist, Hamlet once again appears capable of admitting his love for Ophelia, clearly stating upon his return to Elsinore: “I loved Ophelia”. This makes Hamlet’s actions
in 3.1 difficult to discern, as he tells Ophelia “I loved you not”. The only plausible explanation for this course of action is again based on Ophelia’s reluctance to object to being used as a spy against Hamlet because of her subservience and lack of freewill, a characteristic that was not uncommon around women of the time. During the scene, Hamlet repeatedly exclaims “Get thee to a nunnery”, suggesting that she is now tainted in nature
due to her dishonest actions, while also directly asking “Where is your father?” which
suggests that Hamlet is aware of Polonius’ veiled presence. Hamlet’s anger at her betrayal
appears to manifest itself as anger, and even inspires his fallacious confession on love, possibly just as a means of causing Ophelia to suffer for her actions. This may also explain his callous attitude towards Polonius’ death. Again, Hamlet in nature appears notably different when he is aware of being spied upon, with his aggressive form of madness here barely showing the smallest comparisons to the mocking tone of his antic yet methodical madness when around Polonius in Act 2 scene 2.
Ophelia’s willingness to act as a spy exposes her frailties and utter dependence on men for instruction and guidance. Her exclamation, “O Woe is me”, after being confronted
by Hamlet in 3.1 already shows the early symptomatic progression of sorrow-induced madness and her madness following her father’s death is therefore unsurprising to the
audience. Her primary function in the play is as an innocent yet tragic victim, while Shakespeare also utilises her as a spy to purposefully confusing the audience and catalyse the turmoil in the mind of the protagonist. Her role as a spy also helps to develop the plot, as her actions around Hamlet are responsible for their disconnection, and therefore Ophelia’s frail mind that causes her suicide. This also allows for the recently returned Laertes to take unreserved action against Hamlet.
The distinct lack of action within the play is counterbalanced by the numerous webs of deceit and lies that exist within the play, which keeps the audience entertained throughout the longest of Shakespeare’s works. The plot is only gradually unfolded, with Claudius’ confession not occurring until Act 3 scene 1 and the nature of the protagonist’s mind and dulled desire for revenge meaning that despite the ominous use of diseased language, the audience is still uncertain as to the course of events that the play is destined to take. This ensures that the audience remains keen to uncover the numerous mysteries within the play, and that they share the protagonist’s vulnerability because of the amount of spying and deception that occurs around him.