Hamlet And Appearances

  • Category: English
  • Words: 1940
  • Grade: 100
Appearance vs. Reality in Hamlet

In William Shakespeare's dark comedy, Measure for Measure, the Duke says, "O, what man may within him hide, though angel on the outward side!" (Measure for Measure III. v.) This statement embodies a theme that is common to many Shakespearean plays: the discrepancy between appearances and reality. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet appears to be dead, but in reality is only in a deep sleep. In Othello, Iago appears to be a friend to Othello, but in reality is plotting revenge. In Macbeth the witches' prophecies appear to be good news, but in reality they foretell tragedy. Hamlet, arguably Shakespeare's greatest drama ever written, is no different. In this tragedy, the King appears to be an honest man, Ophelia appears to love Hamlet, and Hamlet appears to be insane. Almost all the characters hide behind a mask of deceit, making it impossible to untangle the web of lies they have created. The deaths of many of the main characters could have been avoided had they been as honest as they seemed. Because the tragedies in Hamlet occur because of lies, the major theme of the play is the difference between appearances and reality.
From the very first scene, things are not what they should be in Denmark. The ghost of the old king appears to tell Hamlet that the situation of his death is not as it appears; his brother has actually murdered him. After receiving this information Hamlet feigns madness in order to gain information about his uncle, the new king. Suspicious of Hamlet's behavior, the king and his councilor, Polonius, use spies and Polonius's daughter and Hamlet's girlfriend, Ophelia, as bait to find the cause of his distress. Unsuccessful at their mission, they plan to send Hamlet to England after he speaks with his mother, the queen. During the confrontation with his mother, Hamlet slays Polonius, believing him to be the king spying. Now sincerely believing that Hamlet is mad, the supposedly honorable king makes arrangements to have Hamlet killed upon arrival in England. Hamlet, finding his way around this death sentence, returns to Denmark to find that Ophelia went mad over the loss of her father and Hamlet and has died. Laertes, Polonius's son and Ophelia's brother challenges Hamlet to a match because of his involvement in the death of his family members. The king, pretending to love and praise Hamlet, toasts Hamlet with a poisoned cup. The allegedly admirable Laertes breaks the rules of the game and wounds Hamlet with a poisoned foil and, with this, all the anger and frustration caused by the deceitfulness of the characters leads to a bloodbath in the castle. When Fortinbras of Norway arrives, the scene appears to be amazing and quite unbelievable. However Horatio, Hamlet's friend, vows to finally clarify the past occurrences by unfolding a story "Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / and in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall'n on th' inventors' heads" (IV. ii. 390-394).
Claudius, the king and the villain of the story, is by far the most obvious fraud and liar in Hamlet. For most of the play, the audience is aware that Claudius is not as honest and fair as he appears to be and therefore, most of the tragedy can be attributed to his crimes. It is very clear that Claudius cares much more about appearance than about respect or love since he goes to great lengths to cover up truth. Shortly after becoming king he tells Hamlet to "think of us / As a father; for let the world take note, / 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. 107-112). By saying this, Claudius shows the court that he loves Hamlet and honors him as the closest to the throne. Though his manner of speaking has assured the council of his kind and honest nature, the next time Claudius appears in the play, he is soliciting two of Hamlet's childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on Hamlet. Though Claudius has gained the respect of the council by expressing grief over his brother's death, sympathy for Hamlet's suffering, and by stopping Fortinbras's threat to Denmark, he is worried that Hamlet's conduct will become a danger to him and plans to outwit him by employing spies. Claudius's use of secret agents backfires when Hamlet kills Polonius. Still striving to keep up his appearance Claudius gives Polonius an obscure funeral so that Hamlet's "poisoned shot, may miss our name / And hit the woundless air" (IV. i. 43-44). Claudius makes plans immediately to send Hamlet to England "for thine especial safety" (IV. iii. 41) but only actually says this to cover the fact that he has asked the king of England to kill Hamlet without delay. Once Hamlet returns, Claudius has to devise a better strategy, and this time must have backups. Claudius and Laertes plot to kill Hamlet in a match between Laertes and Hamlet. The king bets on Hamlet in order to show his loyalty to him. However, when Hamlet strikes Laertes, Claudius becomes worried that his plan will not work and poisons the cup he offers to Hamlet. Though Claudius appears to be genuine and sincere in honoring Hamlet, his motives are sinister. When the fight breaks out between Hamlet and Laertes and both are wounded, Laertes confesses and points the king out as guilty. One response to King Claudius is that his crimes come from the corruption of his character and are not conscious choices made to deceive others. However, it is clear that Claudius's corruption stems from his choices since each one is a result of the one previous. Claudius's first crime of killing his brother cannot be the product of corruption since he made the decision to do it. Therefore, the appearances so important to Claudius are "the cause of this effect, / Or, rather say, the cause of this defect" (II. ii. 101-102) and the reason for most of the tragic deaths.
One of the most disappointingly false characters is Ophelia, Hamlet's love interest. In scene three of act one, Ophelia defends her relationship with Hamlet to her father, Polonius, who says, "Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star" (II. ii. 142) and forbids her to see him. Though Ophelia appears to be angry and hurt at her father's interference, Ophelia obeys him. Later, as a pawn in the king's game of lies, Ophelia is sent to lure Hamlet's true feelings out. Like a compliant child, she goes against her love for him to appease her father and the king. In doing this, she shows Hamlet that her feelings for him are not what they once seemed to be. This sets Hamlet off in a rage at Ophelia until he realizes he is being watched. When he asks her where her father is he is giving her a chance to redeem herself and show that she is honest and faithful to him. However, Ophelia replies, "At home, my lord" (III. i. 133) and proves herself to be a liar and a fraud. Some critics may argue that Ophelia's duty to her father and her king forced her to betray Hamlet's love and trust, but Hamlet's vision of Ophelia would have been shattered anyway because her behavior shows her as weak and dependent. Hamlet's idealism would prevent him from falling in love with someone of this nature, so her betrayal, with or without good reason, still signifies her dishonesty. The disagreement between Ophelia's appearance towards Hamlet and the reality leads Hamlet down an even more distrustful and cynical track and could be to blame for many of the deaths later to come.
Though a strong idealist, some of Hamlet's actions are in strong opposition to his beliefs. As soon as Hamlet learns of the true circumstances surrounding his father's death, he decides "to put an antic disposition on" (I. v. 177) in hopes of discovering something about his uncle. Ironically, this is exactly what Polonius, who Hamlet called a "tedious old fool," (II. ii. 221) did when he sent Reynaldo to Paris to spy on Laertes saying, "With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out" (II. i. 65-66). Hamlet believes that Polonius is a meddling busybody but in reality is committing the same act against his own beliefs. Also ironic is the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia. Ophelia says "rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind" (III. i. 102) because Hamlet's behavior has upset her. Hamlet, realizing Ophelia is being dishonest with him, reproaches her by saying, "I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you once face, and you make yourself another" (III. i. 145-147). This is a paradox because Hamlet is only pretending to be mad and is therefore guilty of the same crime he chides her for. Hamlet is made a hypocrite by this and shows that his own appearance, even when sane, is only "indifferent honest" (III. i. 123) and not ideal. This confrontation, which only complicated matters, could have been avoided had Hamlet decided against faking madness and instead taken a more direct approach towards revenge. When the players arrive the largest disagreement between appearances and reality takes place. Hamlet has them act something that appears to be fiction, but is actually reality. Hamlet now knows that his uncle is guilty and finally sets himself on taking action, but finds Claudius praying and makes the decision to put off his vengeance a little longer. However, Claudius appears to be praying because he feels the weight of his sin, but cannot actually pray because he cannot give up his power. After this, Hamlet goes to his mother's closet and kills Polonius, who he believes to be the king eavesdropping. Hamlet is sent to England for this mistake and when he returns is coerced into a duel with Laertes. In this scene most of the main characters lives come to their closing. Though their deaths are tragic losses, the masks of falsehood that led them to their ends were worn by choice and the outcome could not be avoided. Hamlet's decision to appear to be something he is not set off a chain of events that could have been avoided had he immediately done what he set out to do in the beginning. The reality is that "if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all" (V. ii. 221-222).
The theme of Hamlet can be found by observing that the lying and deceiving to cover up truth still leads to the destruction of all the main characters. All of the deaths could have been avoided had the characters chosen honesty over craftiness; sincerity over stealth; authenticity over duplicity. When Hamlet is holding the skull of Yorick he says one can "paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come" (V. i. 197-198) and this is most definitely true for the characters of Hamlet.
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