The play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare is considered by many as Shakespeare’s greatest work. Hamlet is the quintessential example of a tragedy. In all tragedies the hero suffers and in the end usually dies. Hamlet gets cut by a poisoned sword and dies. The consistent theme throughout the play is appearance versus reality. Many situations appear to be forthright and honest, but in reality they are deceitful and dishonest.
Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and King Claudius all appear to be sincere and trustworthy but the reality is they are all evil. Because they give off the impression that they are trustworthy and sincere, it is extremely difficult for Hamlet to find the truth behind his father’s murder.
The King’s royal assistant, Polonius, has an obsession with appearance. He always wants everyone to think he is a caring and loving person. In the play, Polonius appears to be a wonderful man with incredible love and devotion for his son Laertes. Polonius gives his son advice, which appears to be heartfelt but in reality it was calculated and insincere. Polonius only wants to look like an upstanding person rather than actually being one:
“And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing seasons this in thee!” (1.3. 83-87).
Polonius shows his deceitfulness by giving his son his permission to stay in France but has a spy follow him. Polonius gives the appearance of being a kind and loving father who adores and trust his son but in reality he is a liar. He does not trust his son and shows this by sending a spy to watch his every move. The advice he so lovingly gives Laertes is all an act so he looks like a loving father.
Another example of reality vs. appearance is shown when Polonius tells Ophelia that she no longer can see Hamlet. He tells her that Hamlet does not love her, he only lusts for her. Polonius fills Ophelia’s head with lies but the
reality is he knows how much Hamlet loves her: “Ay, (springs) to catch woodcocks. I do know, When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul” (1.3. 124-125).
Throughout the play Polonius appears to be a loving and honest parent but in reality he is a liar and deceitful. Polonius strengthens the theme of appearance verses reality by demonstrating how his appearance is not his true nature. His true nature is a man of lies not the loving and caring man he tries to portray.
The most evident controversy between reality and appearance betrays the people. Claudius is not the heroic brother of the deceased king who took over the throne to save the people, as they think he did. Claudius speaks to the people and convinces them not to be afraid that their King has died. Claudius, pretending to grieve, encourages the people that they need to forget about King Hamlet and get on with their lives. Claudius says: “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death. The memory be green, and that it us befitted. To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom. (1.2. 1-7). The people of the kingdom believed that King Hamlet died of natural causes and had no idea that their new king murdered him. . Hamlet was to return to Wittenberg, Claudius asks Hamlet not to go back to Wittenberg but to stay so they can watch over him. In reality, Claudius does not care about Hamlet, he wants to watch him. Claudius knows that if Hamlet finds out the truth about his father’s death, he will kill him. Gertrudes thinks that because Claudius asks him to stay he is trying to get closer to his stepson. Hamlet agrees to stay but starts to question why Claudius is so concerned about him.
Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are two characters who contribute to the theme of appearance versus reality. Hamlet’s childhood friends; “My honored lord! My most dear lord!” (2.2. 240-241). In reality are manipulated by Claudius to help him kill Hamlet. Claudius tells them to visit Hamlet and find out what is wrong with him. They go to Hamlet pretending to be his friend when the truth is they only went to see him because the king asks them to. Hamlet figures out that they are only consoling him to find out why he has been so upset. Hamlet, knowing what they are doing, mocks them at every chance he gets because he knows their visit with him is a lie and tells them he does not trust them “my two schoolfellows, whom I will trust as I will adders fanged” (3. 4. 225-226).
Claudius gives Hamlet advice that excessive grieving is not good and that it could make him sick. Claudius tells Hamlet that he is should be commended for grieving for so long over his father’s death. Yet again Claudius keeps putting on the appearance of being an honorable man.
“Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father.
But, you must know, your father lost a father;.
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound. (1. 2. 90-97)
The character which offers the best example of reality vs. appearances is Hamlet. The most prevalent example would be Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (1. 5. 192) which we find out is just an act “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind/is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.402-403). Hamlet is an excellent actor, even convincing his own mother that he is insane, “Alas, he’s mad” (3.4.121). But in reality he is perfectly sane.
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Hamlet also shows reality vs. appearance by his plan to use the play to see if the king is guilty or innocent of the murder of his father: “the play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (2. 2. 633-634). Claudius is lead to believe he is going to a play. He does not realize that the play has an added scene which would accuse him of murdering Hamlet’s father.
Hamlet’s devotion and love for Ophelia also has two sides. Hamlet, when being “antic disposition” appears not to care or love Ophelia. He tells her “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so (inoculate) our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” (3. 1. 127-129). In reality when Ophelia dies Hamlet admits “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum” (5. 1. 285-287)
The characters in the play all show the theme appearance verses reality. Polonius, Rosencrantz. Guildenstern and King Claudius all appear to be sincere and trustworthy. However, in the end, Hamlet sees through their appearances to the reality of their true nature.
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