Hamlet - Appearances vs. Reality

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In William Shakespeare’s 1606 play, Hamlet, the theme of reality versus appearance recurs throughout the play. The play, Hamlet makes references to how things appear versus the truth. Shakespeare’s Hamlet shows how things may not always be as they appear by the death of King Hamlet, Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, the difference between feigning madness and real madness, and through the portrayal of a play within a play.

The North American Edition of the Encarta® World English Dictionary states that the word appearance means “the way somebody or something looks or seems to other people or an outward aspect of somebody or something that creates a particular impression.” The American Heritage® dictionary states that the word reality means “the quality or state of being actual or true, the totality of all things possessing actuality, existence, or essence, and that which exists objectively and in fact.” The discrepancy of appearances and reality recur in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

At the beginning of the play, the dilemma of what is real is established. It appeared as though King Hamlet has died from being bitten by a snake. In reality we learn that Claudius had murdered King Hamlet to attain the position of the throne. We learn the truth that King Claudius killed King Hamlet, and that the appearance that King Hamlet was bitten by a snake was false. We discovered the truth when the ghost of King Hamlet came to tell Hamlet, his son, to avenge his death and said, “Now, Hamlet, hear: 'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown.” (Act 1, Scene 5. Page 59)

The above quote informs the reader that even though we may be told that a serpent stung King Hamlet, which happens to be false, King Hamlet was in fact murdered. It teaches the reader not to jump to conclusions because there may be a whole other story that does not appear on the surface, but is, in reality, the truth.

When the ghost of King Hamlet came to Hamlet, it appeared as an apparition from the depths of hell. In actuality, the ghost was a messenger of truth, who came to deliver the facts to Hamlet. Hamlet showed his mistrust, and fear of the ghost when he said, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us! Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked or charitable, Thou comest in such a questionable shape” (Act 1, Scene 4. Page 55)

The ghost of King Hamlet came to deliver a message for Hamlet so he would know the truth. The ghost told Hamlet the reality about how he died when he said, “The serpent that did sting thy father's life; Now wears his crown” (Act 1, Scene 5. Page 59), Hamlet showed that he understood that the ghost was a messenger of truth, with a purpose and did not come as a spirit from hell. We see he acknowledged this when he said: “It is an honest ghost that let me tell you” (Act 1, Scene 5. Page 62). This informs the reader not to jump to conclusions about other people. Hamlet assumed that the ghost was from hell to haunt them, when in reality the ghost came to deliver a message of truth to Hamlet.

Hamlet and Ophelia showed the difference in the play between appearing mad, and actually being mad. When Hamlet found out that Claudius had murdered his father, he wanted revenge. He was being spied on, and his actions were reported to Claudius, so he decided to put on the appearance of being mad in order to act unpredictably without a need for excuses. Hamlet told Horatio and Marcellus to swear that they would not question his motives, no matter how mad they saw Hamlet acting, when he said, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come; Here, as before, never, so help you mercy, How...
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