To Be or Not to Be?
Shakespeare's Hamlet is the tale of a young prince determined to uncover the truth about his father's recent death. Hamlet's uncle (and also the deceased king's brother), Claudius, marries his mother the queen, and therefore, takes the throne. In the beginning of the story, Hamlet is told by the apparition of his dead father that it was Claudius who in fact murdered him. The theme that remains consistent throughout the tragedy is appearance versus reality. The characters introduced to us throughout the play appear to be pure and honest, but in reality are infested with evil. They deceitfully hide behind a mask of integrity. Four main dishonest characters which are found to be disguised with righteousness are Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the freshly crowned king Claudius. The first impression presented by these characters are ones of truth, honor, and morality; they are all plagued by evilness and lies in reality. Their appearances serve as obstacles for Hamlet as he struggles to discover the hidden truth.
The king's royal assistant, Polonius, has a great preoccupation with appearance. He continually gives the impression of being an affectionate and caring person. He is introduced as a father who deeply cares for his son, Laertes. Polonius speaks to Laertes with advice which sounds sincere, yet in truth, is rehearsed, empty, and without feeling. He gives the advice to make others believe he is a strong, loving, role-model type of a father. He is similar to a politician. He speaks strong, influential words, but does not actually mean what he is saying sincerely in the least. Polonius grants his son his blessing to leave Denmark:
"And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!" (Hamlet 46).
Within his speech to Laertes, Polonius advises him to not borrow from others, to remain true to himself, and not to lie. Polonius appears to be a caring and trusting father when in fact he sends a spy after Laertes to follow and keep an eye on him. This demonstrates his distrust for his son. He is not the confident father in which he is shown to be. His speech was rehearsed to give the effect that he actually cares and is trustworthy of his son.
Polonius further adds to the theme of appearance versus reality when he orders his daughter, Ophelia, to stop seeing Hamlet. He mischieviously lies to her, claiming that Hamlet does not love her, that he only lusts for her: "Ay, springs to catch woodcocks. I do know, When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul" (Hamlet 47). Throughout the play, Polonius is seen as a warm and tender parent. Behind the mask, he is a devious, lying, and manipulative person. Polonius obviously contributes to the theme of appearance versus reality by illustrating that his virtuous appearance is not true in nature, because underneath the facade he is someone completely different.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet's closest friends from childhood. They follow the king's instructions when asked to figure out what is troubling Hamlet. The two go to Hamlet with the illusion of being "friends" with Hamlet, but in truth are simply there to abide by the king's orders. Their inquiry of his problems are not sincere. There is some irony in this situation; the boys are asked to discover the truth while hiding in a lie of pretending to be Hamlet's true friends. As Hamlet realizes their underhanded motives, he states, " A dream itself is but a shadow" (Hamlet 73). Hamlet understands that they are not the "good friends" he assumed they were. The king sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again to try to gain an explanation for Hamlet's awkward behavior. Hamlet recognizes their intentions once again and proceeds to insult them: "It is as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with your finger and thumb, give it breath with your mouth..." (Hamlet 106). It is evident to see how these two "buddies" of Hamlet add to the appearance versus reality theme.
The conduct wonderfully presented by Claudius, the new king of Denmark, illustrates him as an honest and heartfelt man. In Act One, Claudius demonstrates his great skill at public speaking as he is in the presence of council:
" Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe" (Hamlet 33).
The reality of the situation is that Claudius cares little for his brother and his death. He is just happy to be at the head of the thrown; something he had previously longed for. He speaks respectfully and honorably of him and on his behalf only to be looked upon as a loving brother.
In Act One, Hamlet directly insults Claudius, and yet the king continues the front of being caring and truly affectionate towards his nephew. A normal king (or any authority figure) would become angry an punish anyone who would degrade them in any way. Claudius demonstrates to his council that he is understanding of Hamlet's grievances over his deceased father. He advises Hamlet that grieving can be harmful and not healthy. He reinforces that it is respectable and honorable of Hamlet to morn for his father:
" Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father.
But you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness" (Hamlet 37).
Claudius further makes it difficult for Hamlet to reveal the truth about the murder of his father when Claudius announces that Hamlet shall be next in line for the throne of Denmark. This demonstrates Claudius' apparent love and trust in Hamlet, that he would allow him to take his place when he dies. He seems to be an honorable and virtuous man when he declares this: " 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" (Hamlet 37).
All in all, Claudius appears to be a trustworthy king who would do anything for his kingdom. In truth, although, he is a selfish and greedy brother. He desired all his brother once had. He coveted his wife and tried to be a father-figure for his son. He wanted all being a king had to offer, and he achieved his position through the murder of his own flesh and blood. Behind his pure and moral mask, laid a monstrous and deceitful man.
By reading the tragedy, Hamlet, one can reveal that the four characters mentioned in this essay (Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Claudius) are completely two-faced. They follow the theme of appearance versus reality specifically. Each give the first impression of being true to their intentions, honest, and pure. It is uncovered throughout the play that they are all devious and cunning. These characters are impediments to Hamlet, as he fights to discover the truth which haunts him.