Appearance v. Reality in Hamlet

May 5, 2008
By Emma Kilcullen, Braintree, MA

Throughout the play, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Hamlet learns the truth of his father’s recent murder. As the play goes on Hamlet promises to avenge his father’s murderer, his uncle and newly crowned king, Claudius. Throughout the play the theme of appearance versus reality stays constant. Many aspects throughout the play appear to be honest and sincere but in reality are filled with deviltry and mischievousness. Four particular characters in the play are hidden behind a veil of trickery. Hidden behind this veil were Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and King Claudius. Covered by this veil these characters give the appearance of being honest and sincere but on the other side of the veil they are polluted with dishonesty and deviousness.

Polonius, the loyal councilor to Claudius, gives the impression of being an honest man, and a loving, trusting father to Laertes and Ophelia. As Laertes decides to leave for France, Polonius appears to be supportive and happy of his son’s decision. Along with his farewell Polonius sends Laertes off with a blessing: “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 season this in thee” (I.iii.84-87). Despite his farewell, Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes because he does not trust him. Polonius then asks Ophelia to end her relationship with Hamlet, telling her not to trust him and that he is only using her. “Do not believe his vows, for they are ‘brokers, Not of that dye which their investments show, But mere of unholy suits, Breathing like sanctified and pious [bawds] The better to ” (I.iii.136-140). In reality, Polonius is only looking out for himself because he does not want to be embarrassed by Ophelia relationship with Hamlet. In an effort to investigate Hamlet’s madness Polonius spies on him on numerous occasions. True to the theme, Polonius appears to be a good man but in reality does not care about anybody else but himself.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet’s friends from childhood. They are sent by the king to figure out the cause of Hamlet’s insanity. In approaching Hamlet they appear to be Hamlet’s friends: “My honored lord. My most dear lord.” (II.ii.240-41). Hamlet knows they were sent by the king and makes fun of them, refusing to tell the truth about his insanity. They both appear to be concerned out of kindness and friendship but in reality are only doing it as a favor for Claudius.

Claudius, the newly crowned king of Denmark demonstrates the theme of appearance versus reality very well. King Claudius wanted so bad to be king that he killed his own brother, King Hamlet, and then married his brother’s widow, Gertrude. At the beginning of the play Claudius gives the impression that he cared for his brother speaking well of him: “…and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow of woe…”(I.ii.3-4). He only spoke of King Hamlet like this to appear as a kind and caring person in front of the kingdom. Claudius appears to be a caring and loving person towards Hamlet as well. After the murder of Polonius, Claudius has Hamlet sent to England for what appears to be his concern for Hamlet’s safety: “Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety (Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve For that which thou hast done) must send thee hence ” (IV.iii.44-48). Claudius is doing this to appear to look good before the kingdom but in reality he is sending Hamlet to his death. Claudius also announces to the kingdom that Hamlet is next in line for the crown, “You are the most immediate to our throne, And with no less nobility of love Than that which dearest father bears his son Do I impart toward you.” (I.ii.113-116). Claudius also speaks to hamlet appearing to be concerned, mentioning that grieving too much over the death of his father is not good for anybody. He makes himself look like a good, caring man in front of the council in order to be accepted as the King of Denmark.

Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and King Claudius all appear to be honest and sincere people. In reality these people are cruel, dishonest, and disloyal. Throughout Hamlet the theme of appearance versus reality stays constant and what brings out this theme are the lies Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and King Claudius use to cover up their true selves.

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