Hamlet: Appearance vs. Reality
Shakespeare. Shakespeare has always been able to create interesting characters
and one of the reasons they are so interesting might be that they are complex
people with their inner selves differing from their outer selves. Are the
characters in Hamlet the same on the inside as they appear to be on the outside?
The characters in William Shakespeare's Hamlet can be studied in a manner
relating to appearance versus reality. Some of these characters are Claudius,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet.
One character who enables us to examine the theme of appearance versus
reality is Claudius, the new King of Denmark. In Act One, Scene Two Claudius
acts as though he really cares for his brother and grieves over the elder
Hamlet's death. This is shown in his first speech addressed to his court, "and
that it us befitted/To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom/To be
contracted in one brow of woe" (Shakespeare I22-4). It is shown further on in
the same speech when he says, "our late dear brother's death" (Shakespeare
I219). However, this is not how Claudius truly feels about his brothers death,
for Claudius is the one who murders elder Hamlet. We see the proof of this in
Claudius' soliloquy when he appears to be praying; "O, my offence is rank, it
smells to heaven./It hath the primal eldest curse upon't/A brother's murder"
Another love which Claudius fakes is the love he has towards his nephew and
stepson, Hamlet. In his first speech to his court Claudius tells Hamlet not to
leave for school but to remain in Denmark; "It is most retrograde to our
desire/And we do beseech you, bend you to remain/Here in the cheer and comfort
of our eye" (Shakespeare I2114-117). However, later in the play Claudius
develops a plan to send Hamlet away from Denmark with the aid of Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern; "And he [Hamlet] to England shall along with you [R & G]"
(Shakespeare III34). Claudius also refers to himself as "Thy loving father,
Hamlet" (Shakespeare IV350) but when Hamlet is out of the room a few moments
later Claudius has a complete change of face in which he reveals his plan to
have Hamlet executed; "Our sovereign process, which imports at full/By letters
congruing to that effect/The present death of Hamlet" (Shakespeare IV363-65).
Even the love Claudius showed for Gertrude can be questioned in its
validity. Claudius, near the beginning of the play, appears to be happy about
his marriage to Gertrude and in the later scene of Claudius' soliloquy, he lists
Gertrude as one of the reasons he murdered his own brother. We can assume by
this that Claudius did appear to love Gertrude, but we cannot say for certain.
During the final scene of Laertes and Hamlet's fight Claudius poisons Hamlet's
drink, but does nothing to prevent Gertrude from accidentally drinking the
poison save his saying "Gertrude, do not drink" (Shakespeare V2280).
Another character source of information relating to the appearance versus
reality theme would be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Both appear to be Hamlet's
friends; "My honour'd lord!/ My most dear lord!" (Shakespeare II2223-224) but
in reality both are just workers for Claudius who attempt to assist in the
murder of Hamlet. Hamlet realizes this and voices his distrust of the duo, "my
two schoolfellows/Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd" (Shakespeare
One other character which allows us to take a good look at appearances
versus reality is Hamlet. The most famous example of this theme would be
Hamlet's "antic disposition" (Shakespeare I5171) which we learn later in the
play is in fact, just a act "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind/is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw" (Shakespeare II2377-378). Hamlet is a
very convincing actor for even his own mother, "Alas, he's mad" (Shakespeare
III4105), and father, "nor stands it safe with us/To let his madness range"
(Shakespeare III31-2), think that he is mad.
There is also Hamlet's use of the play to determine the Kings guilt or
innocence; "the play's the thing/wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king"
(Shakespeare II2606-607). Claudius believes he is just going to see a play
that Hamlet would like him to see; he does not expect for Hamlet to use the play
to accuse him of murdering elder Hamlet. Hamlet also appears to welcome and
trust his returning friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "My excellent good
friends!" (Shakespeare II2225) but he soon learns to distrust them and leads
them to their deaths.
Hamlet's love for Ophelia also has two different sides. Hamlet, when
wearing his "antic disposition" appears to not care for Ophelia at all telling
her, "You should not have believ'd me/I lov'd you not" (Shakespeare III1117-
119). After her death Hamlet reveals his true feelings by saying "I lov'd
Ophelia: forty thousand brothers/Could not, with all their quantity of love/Make
up my sum" (Shakespeare V1270-272)
As you can see there are many instances of different realities being hidden
behind outward appearances in the play Hamlet. Claudius and Hamlet, and
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to an extent, have a hidden side to them that only
the reader is allowed to see. This helps keep the plot suspenseful and
sometimes humourous when the reader knows what each character thinks of each
other and then sees the opposite happen when the characters interact.