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Hamlet: Appearance vs. Reality

By emula12 Nov 02, 2009 950 Words
One of the most famous and popular authors and script writers is William

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"

(Shakespeare III336-38).

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

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