Appearance vs. reality in Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, is a jaded yet common theme. This play is teeming with characters that play their roles behind a veil of duplicity. They often appear to be one way when they really are something entirely different. Things within the play appear to be true and honest but in reality are polluted with evil. Many of the characters within the play hide behind a mask of dishonesty. Four of the main characters that hid behind this mask are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, and King Claudius. From behind this mask they give the impression of a person who is sincere and true, in reality they are overwhelmed with lies and evil.
One of the most obvious examples of appearance vs. reality in Hamlet is the character of Claudius. Claudius longed to be king, rule the land and crown his queen. He gave no regard to the feelings of the family. He was jealous and ruthless in pursuing his dream…ruthless to the point of murder. He pretends to be concerned and upset with the actions of Hamlet and his well being, when in reality he is frightened that Hamlet is aware of his deadly secret. It was as if he cast a spell on the whole kingdom for his own self-fulfilling interest. Our “innocent” Claudius even summons spies to investigate the origin of Hamlet’s madness…not for the good of Hamlet but for himself. He is indeed a jaded character, whose kind aura masks the face of a selfish murderer as he says “whose whisper o’er the world’s diameter, as levels as the cannon to his blank transports his poisoned shot, may miss our name and hit the woundless air. Oh come away! My soul is full of discord and dismay!”- Claudius, act 4 scene 1, lines 42-46. This quote demonstrates how Claudius seems to be worried about Hamlet and his actions when he is really fearful of him discovering the truth.
In addition, the king’s royal associate, Polonius, appears to be a loyal and trustworthy servant to the kingdom throughout the play, willing to take on tasks and burdens requested by their majesties. However, in reality Polonius is an evil, greedy selfish man, who serves not his kingdom but himself. One example of this is how Polonius appears to be happy, concerned and supportive of his son, Laerte’s, journey to France. He seems to be supportive of his son until he sends Reynaldo as an emissary, in order to detect what sort of mischief he stumbles upon in France. In addition, Polonius, again, displays his devious characteristics when he spies on Hamlet and Ophelia in an attempt to analyze Hamlet’s madness. He soon orders Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet, as he brainwashes her with lies about Hamlets motives, when in reality Hamlet is truly in love with Ophelia. Once again, Polonius proves his scheming behavior when he listens in on Hamlet and Gertrude’s conversation while in the bedchamber. Hamlet finally teaches him his lesson when he unexpectedly murders the “rat.” In reality Polonius is anything but a loving father watching out for his children, he uses everyone to his advantage and for his own purposes; this proves as evidence for his sneaky demeanor.
Even two of Hamlet’s childhood friends are victims of the appearance vs. reality theme. They were sent and bribed by the king and queen to try and determine the cause of Hamlet’s insanity. They approach Hamlet as long-lost pals when they are really anything but. They were there not as friends but hired help for Hamlet’s condition. In act 2 scene 2 line 299, Guildenstern quotes “What should we say my lord?” Completely denying the fact that they were sent for by the king and queen. Hamlet quickly reveals the truth and says, "Were you not sent for/ And there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft in color." (Shakespeare 2:2:278) From these words he is demanding an answer from his schoolmates as to their unexplained arrival. At the end he tells them nothing. As the play continues his "friends" are asked again by the king to go to Hamlet and try again to find the real reason for Hamlet’s behavior. Hamlet insults them at every chance knowing that they are lying to him about their purpose of the visit, "’Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with you finger and thumb, give it breath with your mouth..." (Shakespeare 3:2:348) The twins show their appearance of being Hamlets friends but in truth they have a hidden reason for visiting with Hamlet. Both show that it will be very difficult for Hamlet to uncover the reliability hidden within the lies.
Throughout the play, characters help to show the theme, which is appearance verses reality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, and the king all appear to be good and honest. As Hamlet finds out, all contain lies and have hidden intentions within them. As each character is presented in the play all appear to be good and honest making it a hard for Hamlet to uncover the hidden truth about the nature of each character. Throughout the play everyone puts up a front so to speak, for different reasons. Hamlet believed that the world was corrupt and deceiving, this led him to become violently ambitious. Claudius was manipulative and cunning, and used his greed to achieve what he desired. Deception is a major theme of the play.
Obviously throughout the play there are many discrepancies between appearance vs. reality. It seems everyone is jaded and full of deception or ulterior motives. With such controversial people in the kingdom, it is quite appropriate to state that there truly is something rotten in the state of Denmark.