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Appearance vs. Reality, Hamlet

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In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the main theme of the play is appearance versus reality. The characters within the play appear to be sincere and honourable when in reality they are corrupt and immoral. Many of the characters within the play illustrate this concept. When looking at them from behind a mask they give the impression of a person who is genuine and honest, but in reality they are plagued with lies and despicable behaviour. Four of the main characters that attempt to deceive Hamlet by hiding behind this mask are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, and King Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlets childhood friends who are not as they appear. They are asked by the King and Gertrude to spy on Hamlet in order to find the reason behind Gertrude’s “too much changed son” (II.ii.36). They give the appearance of being Hamlet’s friend, yet in reality, the pair only came to Elsinore because they were summoned. Surprised by his friends’ unexplained arrival, Hamlet questions what has brought them there. Rosencrantz lies when responding “To visit you my lord, no other occasion” (II.ii.266). Hamlet instantly sees through their lies and insists “you were sent for, and there / is a kind of confession in your looks…I know the good king and / queen have sent for you” (II.ii.273-276). Knowing that his so-called friends are lying about the purpose of their visit, Hamlet discloses nothing to them. Having gotten no answers for the King, the two were asked to go to Hamlet once more and continue to seek the real reason for Hamlet’s behaviour. Hamlet has little patience since being lied to and reveals to the pair that he is aware that they are spies and saying to them:
[Y]ou would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery,
. . . . . . . . Call me what
Instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.” (III.iii.343-350)
Although appearing to be Hamlet’s friends, he quickly sees that in actuality, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are only trying to pry him for information.
The King’s royal associate, Polonius, plays an important role in developing the theme. He’s constantly keeping up the façade of a concerned and caring individual. Polonius appears to be a good father, and honourable man. Upon learning that his son is going to France, he gives several pieces of advice to Laertes, in particular “This above all, to thine own self be true” (II.iii.78). He gives advice in order to appear to be a caring father, when in fact he speaks in order to look good rather than to actually be good. Polonius then sends Reynaldo to bring Laertes money but instructs that “Before you visit him, to make inquire / Of his behaviour” (II.i.4-5), and then advises him how to be sneaky about it. Throughout the play Polonius conspires with the King on ways to eavesdrop on Hamlet. When Hamlet is going to speak with his mother, Polonius suggests “Behind the arras I’ll convey myself / To hear the process” (III.iii.28-29). Polonius acts as if his actions are for the king, when in fact it will benefit him greatly if the reason behind Hamlet’s strange behaviour is because of his love for Ophelia. Polonius also humiliates his daughter Ophelia by forcing her to read love letters from Hamlet aloud to the King and Gertrude. He tells Ophelia that it’s in her own best interest not to keep this secret. His words are those of a loving father, but his actions are quite different. Even though Polonius pretends to be moral and a loving parent, the reality is that he is a devious manipulator.
Claudius, the current King of Denmark is the epitome of corruption and immorality although he presents himself to be the rightful king. King Claudius reveals his true maliciousness several times. Claudius only becomes King of Denmark after murdering his brother and marrying his sister-in-law Gertrude in an incestuous marriage. When speaking of his brothers’ death, he justifies the speedy marriage to Gertrude while appearing to have the kingdom’s best interest at heart when explaining “That we with wisest sorrow think on him / Together with remembrance of ourselves” (I.ii.6-7). In actuality, Claudius acts out of greed to become king and out of lust for Gertrude. Claudius demeans Hamlet several times throughout the play. While Hamlet is grieving his father’s death, the heartless king requests “We pray you throw to earth / This unprevailing woe” (I.ii.106-107), showing his deplorable behaviour by referring to Hamlet’s grief as useless. King Claudius shows his true maliciousness during his final act of manipulation. The king appeals to Laertes guilt and convinces him to kill Hamlet to avenge his father’s death by “A sword unbated, and in pass of practice / Requite him for your father” (IV.vii.137-138). King Claudius’s selfish and despicable behaviour leads to the death of all those he had pretended to care for at one point or another: Gertrude, Hamlet, and Laertes. This final act of vengeance brings about the beginning of the end for the entire royal family.
While proving that appearances can be deceiving, the characters help to develop the theme of appearance versus reality in the play. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, and King Claudius all appear to be virtuous and honest people, the reality is that they are continually scheming and plotting against Hamlet. Although appearing to be respectable, each of them is actually tainted by evil and corruption. Unfortunately, Hamlet finds out the hard way that each of them have their own hidden agendas, and corruption spreads like disease throughout the state of Denmark.

Work Cited
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, Ed. Alice Griffin. Literature: An Introduction To Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Robert Zweig, 5th Compact ed. Boston: Pearson Longman, 2012. 1010-1107. Print.

Cited: Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, Ed. Alice Griffin. Literature: An Introduction To Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Robert Zweig, 5th Compact ed. Boston: Pearson Longman, 2012. 1010-1107. Print.

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