Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - cover image

The Theme of Appearance Versus Reality in Hamlet: Sample Essays

Appearance and reality are as deceptively—and maddeningly—far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comically similar.

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Introduction

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.

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

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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.

Claudius: “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).

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

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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.

Polonius: “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.

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

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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.

Hamlet: “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).

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

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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.

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.”

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

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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.

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.

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

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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.