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Surmise Hamlet

It seems that to be surmise Hamlet the theme of spying to gain revenge must be dissected and its abundance in the play with each character must be examined. In the art of spying for revenge, mistakes and half-truths are abundant; therefore, for Hamlet and the rest of the play’s caste of characters their doom is brought on by their own mistrust of each other and their own ignorance about who is spying on whom.

In a broader sense of the term espionage, King Claudius discovers that Fortinbras is approaching Denmark stealthily as Claudius states, “Thus much the business is: we have here writ/To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,–/Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears/Of this his nephew’s purpose,–to suppress/His further gait herein; in that the levies,/The lists and full proportions, are all made/Out of his subject: and we here dispatch/You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand,/For bearers of this greeting to old Norway;/Giving to you no further personal power/To business with the king, more than the scope/Of these delated articles allow/Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty”. Claudius comes to this information through informants who have been spying on Fortinbras’ moves into the country. This is the first occurrence of spying in the play and it sets the stage, and is sort of an outside force to the internal spying taking place.

In Act Two Scene One spying continues with Polonius’ servant Reynaldo. This too adds to the drama of the play and the intrigue of false connotations that spurns the action of the play forwards. Reynaldo is sent to spy on Laertes in Paris and to come back with false reports of his drunken and brazen behavior as Polonius states, “’And in part him; but’ you may say ‘not well:/But, if’t be he I mean, he’s very wild;/Addicted so and so:’ and there put on him/What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank/As may dishonour him; take heed of that;/But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips/As are companions noted and most known/To youth and liberty”.

These smaller spying intrigues with Fortinbras and Laertes are merely devices used by Shakespeare to emphasize the ill use of spying throughout the play. With such intrigue there is built a dichotomy between what the characters think they know and what the audience or reader knows to be true. In this device the audience knows the truth while the characters have to stumble through their lies to arrive at the truth. One of the only friendships that keep Hamlet a bit balanced or stable in his diminishing personality is the one he has with Horatio. It is with Horatio’s guidance that Hamlet finds in himself a conscience. This friendship, however, as with Ophelia’s love, does not stand against the embattlement Hamlet has with his identity and his father’s ‘shadow’.

This a classis case of trying to please a father-figure even to the detriment of one’s own sense of self: Hamlet simply cannot help himself from doing his father’s bidding and this furthers the case against him having any true personality, let alone him actually knowing who he was, when in the play he is traipsing around doing the bidding of the dead and not living his own life. In the famous speech delivered by Hamlet in the graveyard, he states, “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your / songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to / set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock you / own grinning? Quite chapfall’n? ” (Act Five, Scene One, lines 191-194).

The revelation in this scene is that the skull is Hamlet, at least the part of Hamlet that was merry, that was himself. What is left after the deceit, the planned murder, is a skull, is the carcass of a man involved in the occult, bearing witness to a ghost who wishes to make of him a murderer. The joy that once was Hamlet, before the starting of the play, is now wrapped in a shroud; Hamlet, young and not fully a man, contends with a tragedy of not being allowed to fully know his own self. Hamlet’s own nubile spying skills beget his revenge and begin to take shape in the fact that he plans to observe Claudius’ face during the play ‘The Mousetrap’.

Hamlet is trying to observe, though the actions of the play within a play that bears striking resemblance to the actions that took place between Hamlet’s father and Claudius and the murdering of the former. During the action of the play, Hamlet takes note of how Claudius reacts to the scene where the king is murdered, “I have heard/That guilty creatures sitting at a play/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaim’d their malefactions;/For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,/I know my course.

The spirit that I have seen/May be the devil: and the devil hath power/To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds/More relative than this: the play ‘s the thing /Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. ” By Claudius’ omission, Hamlet knows the truth behind his father’s death. Therefore, in this case, spying and chicanery work towards finding the truth. In the downward spiral of Hamlet’s revenge is also the quickening of Hamlet’s own demise. A man may be judged by the company he keeps, may be known to himself and his family by the connections to the people around him which he allows. Hamlet is so plagued by revenge that all of the company around him seems to have an ulterior motive, and so he cannot help but suspect his loved ones of betrayal. In this thought pattern, Hamlet is trapped by his own misgivings and his own denial of trust.

Without the characteristics of a man, of standing by oneself and for oneself in what that man wants in the world, then that man, Hamlet, is nothing more than the plaything of the fates. He does not reach out and take what he wants, but plots for his father and his father’s wishes. What is denied Hamlet is a piece of his own mind. Even with his mother, Hamlet finds himself devoid of identity, “I must be cruel only to be kind. / Thus bad begins and worse remains behind. ” (Act Three, Scene Four, lines 179-180). The denouement of the play takes place when all of the surveillance has become nil in the face of action. The action that takes place is killing. Since the play began with murder Shakespeare comes full circle and ends with murder. Everyone who has spied is slain excepting Horatio.

The ubiquitous nature of the play is in constant motion, the intrigue and spying do not cease even in the final act and scene of Shakespeare play. Even in the end, Hamlet commands to Horatio to tell his story, those allowing for eavesdropping, surveillance and story-telling to journey even further than the landscape of the castle, as Hamlet states, “As thou’rt a man, /Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I’ll have’t. /O good Horatio, what a wounded name,/Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me! /If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart/Absent thee from felicity awhile,/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/To tell my story”.

Hamlet further emphasizes the theme of surveillance by making reference to the counter-intuitive action of silence in place of all the spying and falsity that had been so prevalent in Denmark, “O, I die, Horatio;/The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:/I cannot live to hear the news from England;/But I do prophesy the election lights/On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;/So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,/Which have solicited. The rest is silence”. Since the rest is silence, Shakespeare is taking note and having the audience recognize how busy with double-dealings and Machiavellian intrigue the landscape of the castle had been. When Hamlet says, ‘silence’ he means not only death but the end of panopticism.

Fortinbras takes control of the kingdom and the final act of the play emphasizes that although surveillance led to mistaken identity and false presumptions about some people it did however become a most indispensable tool in discovering the truth. Hamlet, in the end, relinquishes his identity for his father’s will. Hamlet did not know himself, and this is proven by his gutless relinquishes of love, and his friendship that failed to save him from a fateful tragedy. In Hamlet’s mind, there was a clear mark of revenge, but that was due to his dwindling identity being replaced by his father’s will. In Hamlet is found the tragedy of a man who did not fully know himself, and in not knowing himself, his actions, his words, his thoughts were not his own and this is increasingly true through the progression of Shakespeare’s play.

Hamlet is so overwhelmed by the insatiable will of his father for revenge that Hamlet forgoes a life less troubled, a life more known. The tragedy of Hamlet is made wretchedly succinct in that he sacrifices so much for approval; he is indeed swallowed by the shadow, the ghost his father left behind. Whether Hamlet truly saw his father or had imagined it, as Horatio said, does not matter in the end of the play, for so convinced is Hamlet of his father’s convictions that he feels a sense of justice in the murder.


Jung, C. G. Essays on a Science of Mythology. Princeton University Press, New York. 1978. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstein. Folger Shakespeare Library, New York. 1992.

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