Appearance vs Reality in Hamlet

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Appearance versus reality is one of the central themes of Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. The characters frequently put on guises which conceal their true intentions. For example, Claudius, in reality a murderer and usurper, plays the roles of grieving brother and rightful king and the adulterous Gertrude plays the role of a virtuous queen, when she is, in her son's view, a truly insidious woman. Even Hamlet himself assumes the role of a madman in his attempt to establish the reality of his uncle's guilt. This essay will examine this theme throughout the play, focusing on these examples. In Act 1 Scene 2, the anxious Gertrude asks her son why he is taking the death of his father so personally: Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not 'seems'.

'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye
(I.ii.87)
Here the prince may be implying that his mother's grief, unlike his own, is merely an appearance. When the ghost of old Hamlet appears and reveals to his son the horrific details of his death at the hands of his treacherous brother, the theme of appearance versus reality becomes firmly rooted in the plot as Hamlet is presented with a moral dilemma. If the ghost is in reality what he appears to be, then Claudius is merely an appearance, an arch-hypocrite. The king is not in reality the grieving brother he had pretended to be in the previous scene, but a ruthless fratricide. This is Hamlet's initial reaction to his dead father's revelations. “O villain, villain, smiling damned villain! That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (I.v.109). Gertrude too is exposed as a hypocrite, a most seeming-virtuous queen. However, if the ghost is not what it appears to be, but rather a malicious spirit, then Claudius really is a grieving brother and the queen is in fact a virtuous woman who did not commit adultery with her brother-in-law. The pretence of...
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