In Hamlet, appearance and reality are as deceptively—and maddeningly—far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comically similar.
Three full sample essays on the theme of appearance versus reality in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Players arrive at a castle where two theatrical performances are already in progress.
The real yet false king
Claudius rewrites life’s script so that he is now the leading man on the center stage of Denmark.
In life, enjoyed acting as someone he was not. In death, killed because he is mistaken for someone else.
The player prince
No one is more skilled at pretense than Prince Hamlet—or is as quick to recognize it in others.
The painting motif reinforces the theme of false appearances and hidden truths.
Barnardo and the other castle lookouts of Act I were watching in the wrong direction.
Play-acting did not begin at Elsinore with the arrival of a troupe of fictional actors, played by real actors. The Players come to a castle where two theatrical performances are already in progress.
One is a charade of legitimate kingship, directed by and starring the usurping Claudius. The second work of theater is a one-man show of madness, written and performed by his nephew, Prince Hamlet.
Echoing the grave-digger’s comment that “an act hath three branches” (5.1), Hamlet the play can be regarded as an extended triple pun on the verb ‘to act.’ At Elsinore, the play’s characters variously take action, play false roles and perform in theater.
#Hamlet - A play-long pun on the verb 'to act': to do and to play a false role.
The playwright of providence cast Claudius as a secondary character in the shadow his brother, King Hamlet. But Claudius rewrites the script so that he now shares the throne and bed of Queen Gertrude.
Attempting to see behind the mask of Hamlet’s madness, Claudius directs or colludes in three ‘plays-within-a-play.’ But neither the false show of concern by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern nor the staged encounter with Ophelia “hold a mirror up to nature” (3.2). The third ploy, arranged with Polonius as the secret audience, marks the turning point after which events spiral out of Claudius’ control and his “sorrows come … not single spies, but in battalions” (4.5).
#Hamlet: Where appearance and reality are maddeningly and tragically far apart.
Not even his own son and daughter are safe from the duplicitous ploys of the king’s advisor, Polonius. He sends a spy Reynaldo to Paris to spread malicious lies about Laertes—“Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth” (2.1). He then exploits Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet, directing her to stumble across the prince “as ’twere by accident” (3.1), while he and the king listen nearby, “seeing, unseen.”
Appropriately, Polonius dies as he lived, eavesdropping behind a curtain. “(F)arewell. I took thee for thy better,” says Hamlet (3.4). With deadly irony, the man, who in life so enjoyed acting as someone he was not, met his death because he was mistaken for someone else.
Polonius in #Hamlet - "If circumstances lead me, I will find / Where truth is hid."
Like his creator, Prince Hamlet is an actor (“I perchance hereafter shall… To put an antic disposition on”, 1.5) and playwright (“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”, 2.2). For the first half of the play he is also a harsh theater critic of the other characters’ insincere performances. But his words and theatrics are not enough to unseat Claudius.
On his return to Elsinore, a changed Hamlet has decided he will no longer “like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2). The prince has accepted the Everlasting as the playwright of his life and death: “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Whatever is destined to happen, will happen; “the readiness is all” (5.2).
Prince #Hamlet - "A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear."
Claudius compares his masquerade of legitimate kingship with the make-up worn by a prostitute: “The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most painted word” (3.1). He continues the paint metaphor in 4.7: “Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart?”
But, as Hamlet observes in the graveyard scene of 5.1, death will triumph over all painted makeup and disguises. Speaking to Yorick’s skull, he declares: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.”
Claudius fools everyone, except Prince #Hamlet. Gertrude fools only herself.
“Who’s there?” asks the castle guard Barnardo as midnight approaches in the play’s very first line. His question expresses an underlying theme of the play: the difficulty of correctly identifying the true, authentic selves of others—and by extension, of distinguishing between appearance and reality, between what ‘seems’ and what ’is’.
Ironically, the watchful sentinel was looking in the wrong direction. The menace that doomed Denmark as an independent nation came from inside the walls of Elsinore itself. Denmark was not conquered by an external military campaign; it collapsed under a web of domestic deception.
#Hamlet - Barnardo and the castle guards were looking in the wrong direction.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as both the tragic hero and victim of a story he did not want to be in.
His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her self-drowning is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
The relationship between uncle and nephew begins with mutual suspicion and dislike, escalates into a psychological battle of wits and ends with defeat for both and victory for the rival kingdom of Norway.
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she to the water, he to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
A genuine friendship in an Elsinore poisoned by betrayal. But does Hamlet exploit his frien’s loyalty with his improbable tale of rescue by pirates?
A marriage of practical interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the role of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
Deception, revenge, madness, corruption, decay and death—all shaped by destiny. A prince is left with an impossible choice when his uncle chooses murder and his mother chooses self-delusion.
Two young men journey from revenge, through madness and anger, to forgiveness. An opportunist claims an empty throne. And a restless Ghost is granted atonement for his sins by his kingdom-surrendering son.