Appearance vs. Reality
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, there is a dominant and overwhelming theme that is concurrent throughout the play. Throughout the play, all the characters appear as one thing on the outside, yet on the inside they are completely different. The theme of appearance versus reality surrounds Hamlet due to the fact that the characters portray themselves as one person on the outside, and one different on the inside. In the play, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, appears to be kind, gentle, and caring on the outside, but in actual fact, he uses his loving behavior as a mask to cover up the fact that he is a selfish, mean, and cold murderer. The women in Hamlet appear to live happy and wonderful lives on the outside, but their happiness is used to cover up the corruptness of their lives on the inside. And finally Hamlet appears to be mad and insane, but really he is using
his madness as a veil to hide his secretive quest to seek the truth behind his father’s death.
Appearance versus reality is coexistent theme that develops as the Danish kingdom gets engulfed in a web of a deception, corruption and lies.
Hamlet is filled with characters covering up their true intentions with a whole other person, whom appears to be innocent. One character, that used deception to cover up their true intention, was Claudius. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, is a very deceptive and cruel person. Claudius killed his brother, which was Hamlet’s father and then married his brother’s wife in order to become the new king of Denmark. No one knew that Claudius committed the murder so he did not receive any punishments for his actions. Claudius was forced to put on an angel-like appearance that transformed him from a cold murderer to the perfect king. This illusion that Claudius puts on ensures that his secret is kept hidden. Under the illusion, Claudius is no longer a mean, and selfish guy, instead he appears in all aspects to be the perfect gentlemen. Claudius exemplifies the appearance versus reality theme, by the fact that appears to be kind and gentle, but in actual fact he is using his kindness and gentleness as a cloak to cover up the malicious murder that he so violently committed. Claudius through out the play feels guilt for action, and thus tries
to repent for his sin in, by praying. In his prayer he says, “My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder?”” In this scene Claudius is not clear on what to feel. He struggles to get out his prayer, because he is unsure that he will be forgiven. He wants to repent for his sin, but he knows that he can’t because he is not truly sorry. Claudius list some reasons why he can ask for forgiveness. He says “Of those effects for which I did the murder- my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.” Claudius realizes that his outside wants to seek forgiveness but his inside can not give up the positions that gained. Claudius thus realizes that he has to separate his own deceptive illusion from of true feelings.
The women in Hamlet exemplify the theme of appearance versus reality as well. Ophelia and Gertrude display deceptive illusions to hide the corruptions of their lives. Ophelia shields her love for Hamlet in the beginning of the play, but eventually is forced to throw herself to Hamlet, at her father’s request. Ophelia exaggerates her love for Hamlet, so her father can prove to the king and queen that Hamlet’s madness comes from his love for Ophelia. Hamlet senses that Ophelia love is not genuine, and therefore treats her with disgust. He assaults Ophelia with words, and also with his actions, which included killing her father, though unintentional. Hamlet begins displaying acts of cruelty towards Ophelia, by using malicious sarcasm. He tells her to:
“Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father? Let
the doors be shut upon him, that he may play fool
nowhere but in’s own house.
Before this scene, Hamlet overhears the king and Ophelia’s dad attempt to form a plan to try to fathom the source of Hamlet’s unusual
behavior. Their plan involves using Ophelia as the bait. Ophelia can do nothing but comply with the king and her father plan. Hamlet is outraged that Ophelia, the girl he loves, is involved in a plot against him. Out of anger, Hamlet says to Ophelia,
“I did love you once but you should have not believed
me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but
we shall relish of it. I loved you not.”(3.1.125-129)
Hamlet renounced his love for Ophelia and called her a fool actually believing that he did love her. Hamlet’s acrimonious words caused Ophelia to break down emotionally because she was caught in trap that forced her to go against her lover. Ophelia’s emotional breakdown could have been prevented if she would have realized that Hamlet’s harsh behavior was an illusion used to conceal his feelings about his mother’s scandalous marriage. The other woman in the play, Gertrude, also displayed the theme of appearance versus reality.
Gertrude refuses to believe that Hamlet tells the truth, when he tells her that Polonius is a murderer. Hamlet tells his Gertrude:
” Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear. Blasting
his wholesome brother…. In the rank sweat of an
enseamed bed. Stewed in corruption, honeying and
making love. Over the nasty sty A cutpurse of the
empire and rule, that from a shelf the precious diadem
stole and put it into his pocket.”(3.4.74-115)
Hamlet tells her that her husband killed the old king, in order to become the new king. Gertrude refuses to believe Hamlet, despite his strong will to make her believe. Gertrude forces herself to be happy despite of the circumstances. Her whole life is an illusion, by the fact that she does not want to accept anything that will make her unhappy. Gertrude wants to live a life filled with nothing but happiness. Her illusion is the unwillingness to accept the tribulations of life. The character that best exemplifies the theme of appearance versus reality is Hamlet himself. Hamlet acts, as he was a mad man. He acts very strangely, which in turn creates the illusion that he is insane. He appears to be mad in order to conceal his true feelings and intentions. Hamlet’s true intention is to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius. Hamlet does not let anything get in
the of way avenging his father’s death, except a little procrastination. He kills three innocent people, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius, if you can call them innocent, without having feelings of guilt. His malicious actions were actually expressing the way he felt. As the story progresses, Hamlet becomes a very cruel and cold hearted person who cares for no one. His madness over takes him. After Polonius’s death, Hamlets gets into a fight with Laertes, Polonius’s son. Laertes wants to avenge the death of his father. It isn’t until later much later that Hamlet realizes that Laertes is upset over his father’s death. Hamlet contributes Polonius’s death to his madness, when he says to Horatio,
“If Hamlet from himself be tak’en away, and when
he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, then Hamlet
does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it, then?
His madness. I’t be so, Hamlet is of the fraction
that is wronged; His madness is poor Hamlet’s
Hamlet is telling Horatio that the madness that was within him killed Polonius. The separation between Hamlet and his madness proves that his madness is just an
appearance. Hamlet knows that his madness is a just a mask used to cover up his true feeling. Hamlet’s true feeling is that he does not care for anyone but himself. Hamlet has a mask of madness that he uses to conceal his true feelings. Hamlet’s madness, though just as an illusion proves that he does not have care for Ophelia. Hamlet always harassed Ophelia with denigrating words that belittled her existence. Hamlet harassed Ophelia with his actions too. Hamlet murders Ophelia’s father, which totally destroys Ophelia. Ophelia is forced to commit suicide because she can’t handle the destructive force of her father’s death. At Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet said,:
“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not
make up my sum”(5.1.285-287)
If Hamlet loved Ophelia so much, then why did he treat her so badly. Hamlet’s madness is used to cover up the hatred he had for Ophelia as well as for his mother. Hamlet treats his mother with no respect at all. He threatens her, and forces her to see give into his ways. Hamlet sits his mother down in her bed and tells her,
“This is your husband. Look now what
Hamlet tells his mother that her husband Claudius is a murderer and that she should have not married him because he is no good. As I see it, when Hamlet is telling his mother the bad things about her husband, he is not polite and sincere about it at all. He is yelling and screaming at her. This rash behavior is not madness- it is Hamlet. This is one of the few occasions where Hamlet expresses his true feelings without the use of deception.
Hamlet is filled with many falsehoods and deceptions. It seems like no one in the play can express what their true motives are. Deceptive illusions are used frequently in Hamlet to provide protection from the destructive force of truth. All the characters are corrupt, are thus rely on deception to get what they want. The only non-corrupt characters in Hamlet seem to be the gravedigger and his assistant. With the exception of a few characters, the theme of appearance versus reality is the fundamental basis for all actions of the characters in the play.