Hamlet is an exaggerated reflection of life, a hyperbolic “mirror of nature” on both the page and on stage. Like life and death, betrayal and madness come hand in hand. Rarely are these concepts ever cut and dry, but rather intertwined with one another. As shown in Hamlet, it is very much a case of which came first. Is insanity sparked from treachery, or does dishonesty and a cheating nature stem from an existing delusion?
Hamlet searches for justice in an environment preoccupied with lies and deception. The version of truth that he seeks is not culminated by vengeance against his father’s murderer, but the question of murder itself. He lives in a world steeped in blood and confusion and conspiracies against the crown; how can a young man cope with that sort of betrayal without rendering himself insane? The simple answer: he doesn’t. Hamlet is a character of antic, verging on melodramatic depending on how he is read, and is almost disturbingly preoccupied by death. He speaks with the ghost of his father, kills Polonius in a fit of rage towards whom he believes to be Claudius, effectively causes Ophelia to commit suicide, and holds a one way conversation with a deceased jester’s skull. “To be or not to be” he asks, yet never seems to reach a solid conclusion.
The concept of death in Hamlet is nearly directly tied with a falseness of some sort. Most striking of these are the acts of murder and accusation that Hamlet himself commits while under the “guise” of madness. It is never clear whether or not he was mad before the events of the play, but it is safe to assume that his pretense of insanity spiralled into an actual affliction. Spurred on by the discovery of Claudius murdering his father, and Gertrude, the queen, willingly marrying him so soon after King Hamlet’s death, Hamlet hatches a plan to avenge his father’s memory. But, in the process, he feeds into the lies that plague so many of the characters in the play. Hamlet’s life becomes full of deception whilst he attempts to off Claudius, socially and physically, thus completing his descent into unbalance. He is no longer any different than those who killed and were killed throughout the work. His craving for honesty dissolved the moment his truth became twisted around the lies of his madness.
That is not to say, however, that Hamlet was ever truly a light character to begin with. It is true that he is always hesitant to exact revenge or end a life, but there comes a point where his actions contradict his inner turmoil. In one memorable scene, he refuses to murder a praying Claudius, claiming that “ this same villain send to heaven” were he murdered in a moment of faith (3.3.1). In another instance, he laments over whether or not to commit suicide and decides against it, yet drives Ophelia to do so with seemingly little remorse until Act V. To Gertrude, as well, he shows nothing but contempt, calling her marriage a foray into “incestuous sheets” (1.2.159). This ill regard for women is apparent even before he feigns insanity, and possibly stems from bitterness over his father’s death .
This change from an disenchanted youth content to stew over his mother’s marriage and father’s death to a man of increasing madness and frustration effects not only himself, but nearly everyone in the play. The characters are subtly forced to choose sides and the results of their decision end in either death or misfortune. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain loyal to Claudius, thus effectively turning their backs on Hamlet. Polonius does the same until his dying day, which ends in murder at the hands of Hamlet, a betrayal to Laertes as well. Ophelia’s relationship with her father is spoiled by his warning her against Hamlet, and the couple’s relationship is spoiled by Hamlet’s betrayal of her emotions. Though Laertes, in Act V, acknowledges his actions by declaring that he is “justly kill’d with mine own treachery”, the seeds have already long been sewn (5.2.12).