In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet there is a dominant and overwhelming theme that is amplified throughout the entire play. Things are not always what they seem. Many of Shakespeare’s most complex characters hide behind multiple masks of lies and deceit. The American Heritage Student Dictionary defines illusion as “an unreal or misleading appearance or image” and reality as “the state of things as they actually exist”. The focus of this essay is the struggle between illusion and reality in Hamlet. The theme of illusion versus reality outlines the great play due to the fact that various characters portray themselves as different people on the outside than they really are on the inside. Because illusions and appearances portrayed by Claudius, Ophelia, Polonius, and Hamlet are so easily misinterpreted as reality, the characters and readers of Hamlet must constantly strive to distinguish between what is real and what is an illusion.
Claudius is rarely honest with any character in the play, including himself. He manipulates everyone around him in order to achieve his own wants and wishes. Claudius first wears a mask of grave sorrow for the abrupt death of a king. This is right before he marries the king’s widow in order to obtain the throne. He also lives in an illusion of love for an inherited son. He tells Hamlet that he is the next in line for the kinghood. He is also very kind to Hamlet despite rude comments Hamlet directs towards his uncle. This is an enormous illusion. The reality is Claudius feels threatened by Hamlet and worries from the start that Hamlet may be aware of the circumstances of his father's untimely death.
Claudius eventually finds himself in an internal struggle between illusion and reality; he realizes that he must separate his own deceptive actions from his true feelings. After pretending to be sorry for so long, he tries to pray, "O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, --A brother’s murder!—Pray can I not" (3.3.42-45). This attempt at prayer saves his life for a short while because Hamlet decides he does not want to kill his uncle while he is in prayer. After Hamlet passes up the opportunity, Claudius reveals to readers that there is no truth behind his prayers, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts to heaven go" (3.3.97-98). He is aware of his struggle which makes it even more apparent for readers. Claudius longs to experience the feelings he knows he should, the emotions he has been faking for so long. However, the reality is that Claudius is so happy with his new status and possessions to ever claim peace with himself or God. It is also an illusion for Hamlet because as he sees Claudius praying, he feels a certain sorrow and peace for his uncle. The reality of the sorrow Hamlet feels is that at the time of praying, Claudius is right in the middle of plotting Hamlet's demise. When one compares illusion and reality in terms of prayer and murder, it becomes much easier to distinguish what is real. Claudius is a murderer who has deceived so many; he has even deceived himself.
Ophelia is a prime example of a woman in a Shakespearian play. She is controlled by all the men in her life. During the course of the story, Ophelia allows her brother Laertes, her father Polonius, and her love Hamlet to exhibit command over her actions, and ultimately her existence. These authorities she allows to exist in her life are the primary causes of her struggle between illusion and reality. Ophelia, as stated by Richard Corum, is forced to “toe the social line at whatever cost to her hopes and desires” (3). Besides Ophelia herself, the protagonist Hamlet is most directly effected by her indecisiveness and her struggles between illusion and reality. Ophelia, in the beginning of the play, blocks her love for Hamlet because her brother warns her that Hamlet's feelings are only out...