THEME OF APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY IN HAMLET: SAMPLE ESSAYS

“Who’s there?” (1.1). The characters of Hamlet struggle to make sense of a world where appearance and reality are as deceptively–and maddeningly–far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comically similar.

In six parts — your free sample essay on the theme of appearance versus reality in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. From Hamlet: Model Essays for Students by Brendan Munnelly.

Theme of appearance versus reality
in Hamlet: Introduction

“An act hath three branches”

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.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet - A play-long pun on the verb 'to act': to do and to play a false role.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Hamlet is fundamentally a play about play-acting. Almost everyone is performing or directing others to play a false role.
  • Almost everything in Hamlet appears in twos. Such pairs and contrasts underscore Elsinore’s two-faced world.
  • The truth-seeking prince must put on a succession of false poses in order to expose the falsity of others.

Key Supporting Quotes

5
quotations from the play to support your statements.

1

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - small side pic

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Claudius: the false monarch

“He that plays the king”

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).

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet: Where appearance and reality are maddeningly and tragically far apart.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Claudius acts the false role of a grieving brother and rightful monarch: “(O)ur whole kingdom. To be contracted in one brow of woe” (1.2).
  • Both Prince Hamlet and Norway’s Young Fortinbras are unconvinced by Claudius’ royal performance. One doubts his moral character; the other his ability as king.
  • Claudius exiles Hamlet to England “for thine especial safety” (4.3). In reality, he is sending his nephew to his death.

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

2

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - small side pic

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Polonius: political and family spymaster

“Seeing, unseen”

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.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

Polonius in #Hamlet - "If circumstances lead me, I will find / Where truth is hid."

CLICK TO TWEET!  

SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • The guard’s words, “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4), apply as much to Polonius as to his political master.
  • Prince Hamlet, rather than revenging King Hamlet’s murder, creates another vengeance-seeking, fatherless son, Laertes.
  • Polonius, who declared “the apparel oft proclaims the man” (1.3) is buried without ceremony in an unmarked grave.

Key Supporting Quotes

14
quotations from the play to support your statements.

3

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - small side pic

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Hamlet: the player prince

“I know not seems”

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).

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

Prince #Hamlet - "A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear."

CLICK TO TWEET!  

SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Prince Hamlet is the play’s most contriving character: no one is more skilled at pretense, or is as quick to recognize it in others.
  • Hamlet’s happiest moment in the play is in 2.2 when he learns of the Players’ arrival – “Buzz, buzz”.
  • Hamlet’s stabbing of Polonius resulted from his lack of faith, not madness. The prince failed to wait for Providence to provide the right moment for removing Claudius.

Key Supporting Quotes

25
quotations from the play to support your statements.

4

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - small side pic

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Queen Gertrude

“Paint … an inch thick”

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.”

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

Claudius fools everyone, except Prince #Hamlet. Gertrude fools only herself.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Many characters hide their innermost thoughts from others. Gertrude wears her mask on the inside: she hides from herself the truth about the man she accepted as second husband.
  • It is this inner wall of self-delusion that Prince Hamlet seeks to breach: “You shall not budge. You go not till I set you up a glass Where you may see the inmost part of you” (3.4).

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

5

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - small side pic

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Theme of appearance versus reality
in Hamlet: Conclusion

“Who’s there?”

“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.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet - Barnardo and the castle guards were looking in the wrong direction.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Hamlet is a play that begins with a question and ends with much left unsaid: “Had I but time…, I could tell you” (5.2).
  • A traumatized Ophelia went to her watery grave never knowing why her prince’s “noble and most sovereign reason” became “Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh” (3.1).
  • The play demonstrates what tragic consequences follow when “He that plays he king” (2.2) is a deceitful villain.

Key Supporting Quotes

8
quotations from the play to support your statements.

6

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - small side pic

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

42 x 1,500-word model essays

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students Get it from Amazon  >

 

Chapter-by-chapter guide to Hamlet Model Essays

Inside you will find three 1,500-word essays on each of the following 14 characters, relationships and themes.

#1: The Character of Hamlet

Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in.

#2: The Character of Claudius

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.

#3: The Character of Gertrude

“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.

#4: The Character of Ophelia

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-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.

#5: Relationship of Hamlet and the Ghost

By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.

#6: Relationship of Hamlet and Claudius

Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).

#7: Relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude

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.

#8: Relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia

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.

#9: Relationship of Hamlet and Horatio

“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.

#10: Relationship of Claudius and Gertrude

A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.

#11: Main Themes of Hamlet

A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.

#12: The Theme of Revenge

Two young men journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of old King Fortinbras on old King Hamlet.

#13: Deception and Appearance versus Reality

“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.

#14: The Theme of Madness

“Your noble son is mad”, Polonius tells Denmark’s king and queen. But is Hamlet ever really insane? If not, why is he pretending to be? And is the prince’s behavior the cause of Ophelia’s traumatic breakdown?