An Exploration Of The Theme Of Appearance

Vs. Reality In Shakespeares Hamlet Essay, Research Paper

An Exploration of the Theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, many of the characters exhibit a puzzling, duplicitous nature, namely, Hamlet and Claudius. Shakespeare weaves an ambiguous tale where, through the attributes of acting a role and that of being true to one’s self, each of the characters appear to be something they are not (Unknown2 2). The reason for the characters’ ruse is that they must struggle with some sort of internal dilemma consciously or sub-consciously, be it revenge, hypocrisy or deceit. These three issues make up a thematic basis of this tragedy; they are the reality that is hidden behind a mask of appearances.

In this play, Hamlet consistently contradicts himself through his pledges of revenge and action, only to become emotionally distraught and self-piteous moments later in revelations to the audience (Unknown1 1). He further displays his paradoxical nature by his feigned madness, which is the essence of the appearance versus reality theme of Hamlet.

In the first act, Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and inner state (Crunelle-Vanrigh 6). When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance, Hamlet says, “Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not ’seems.’” (1.2.76). That is to say, “I am what I appear to be”. Later in Act I, Hamlet makes a clear declaration about his state when he commits himself to revenge. After the apparition of his father appears to him, Hamlet seems to make a transition from a mourning son to a man whose being is centered on revenge:

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

That youth and observation copied there;

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain (1.5.100-103).

There is no confusion about Hamlet’s character at this point; he appears to be concentrating wholly on the injustice committed against his father (Unknown1 4). However, when Hamlet appears again in Act 2, it seems that he has lost the conviction that was present earlier; he has yet to fulfill the oath he made to his father. Instead of playing the part of a vengeful son, he remains in limbo in a guise of insanity.

Claudius, the man of ” traitorous gifts “(1.5.44), is perhaps the most deceptive, hypocritical character in the play. He gives the appearance of an honest and noble man, the protector and savior of his kingdom. In Act I, Scene 2, Claudius shows his skill and ease of manner at speaking. He bestows fond remembrances of the dead king and the same the same time gives advice meant to comfort to his nephew/son: ” throw to earth / This unprevailing woe; and think of us ” (1.2.106-108). He gives the appearance of a nurturing stepfather, trying to comfort his skeptical stepson who does not believe his gibes of support.

In letting his evil ambition win over his virtue, Claudius introduces the element of deception by first misleading his kingdom into believing King Hamlet died from a snakebite. He never reveals the true circumstances, except to the audience: “The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most painted word: / O heavy burden!” (3.1.52-55). This statement is also saturated with hypocrisy; his behavior is just as ugly as the deed it is covering up. This revelation is especially important, not only because it is the first time Claudius makes an admission of his guilt, but because he acknowledges the possible circumstances he must face: that the kingdom could find out he is to blame for the murder of King Hamlet. However, he must use appearances at all costs to keep the truth under cover.

Claudius demonstrates his deceptiveness by giving orders to various people to fulfill his evil plans, and continues to use them as his toys. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are his favorite pawns; their na vet allows them to be used at Claudius’ leisure. Following Claudius’ orders, they put on an innocuous act of friendliness to Hamlet to get him to confide in them. Regardless of how cordial they appear to be, Hamlet does not let them discover why he has been acting strange of late. In the statement, “I know a hawk from a handsaw”(2.2.377), Hamlet affirms that he knows his enemies from his friends, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not his real friends.

The climax of the play involves, most dramatically, the theme of appearance versus reality. Claudius, in seeming sanctimonious prayer is at his most vulnerable to Hamlet, who is poised and ready to murder him. It is at this point where all circumstances allow for the perfect revenge to take place. However, Claudius looks as though he is repenting; the possibility of extreme unction for Claudius is why Hamlet abstains from committing the deed. It is most ironic because in reality, Claudius is only droning over the facts of his crime, not asking God to forgive it. Like King Hamlet who could not be absolved from his sins prior to dying, Claudius would have been sent into purgatory. Hence, Hamlet would have gotten the perfect revenge.

In Hamlet, the main characters’ fraudulent behavior is due to the fact that they are struggling with an internal dilemma that must be overcome. Both Hamlet and Claudius feel a fervent need to appear to be something they truly are not in order to achieve their goals. Each of their beings is bolstered by this need. Revenge, hypocrisy and deceit are the true motives in this play; they are the reality hidden behind farcical appearances.



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