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Appearance vs. Reality in Hamlet

In Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, there is a prevailing theme that is concurrent throughout the play. Throughout the play, all the characters appear to be one thing on the outside, yet on the inside, they are completely different. The theme of appearance versus reality is prominent in Hamlet because of the fact that the characters portray themselves differently from what they really are. In the play, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, appears to be a caring, moderate man on the outside, but he is using his loving personality to mask his true traits of a selfish, mean, cold-hearted murderer. The women in Hamlet appear to live happy, wonderful lives on the outside, but their joy is used to cover up the unhappiness they feel on the inside.  And finally, Hamlet appears to be mad and insane, but really he is using his madness to hide his intentions of seeking justice for his father’s murder.

The question of appearance versus reality is one of the most significant in philosophy. What is genuinely real and what is appearance, or illusion? This question is developed as the Danish kingdom is filled with deception, treason, and lies. Claudius is a deceiving character who goes to great lengths to mask his true intentions, portraying himself as a kind, gentleman. Claudius kills his brother to inherit the throne and weds Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. His crime goes undetected, and he is free of punishment for his actions. Claudius progressively carries his evil plot by putting on an angle-like appearance that makes him seem like a man fit to be the king of Denmark. This illusion that Claudius puts on ensures that no suspicion is aroused and that his secret is kept hidden. Under this illusion, Claudius is not a selfish, cruel man, but an honourable and respectable king. Claudius uses his kind and gentle behaviour as a cloak to conceal the violent murder he committed to fulfilling his ambition of becoming king.

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Throughout the play, Claudius feels some remorse for his actions and tries to repent for his sin by praying. In his prayer he says, “My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer Can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder?” (3, 3, 54-55) In this scene Claudius appears to be puzzled by his own emotions. He is hesitant to pray because he is unsure that he will be forgiven for his sin. He wants to repent for his sins, but he knows that he is not truly sorry. Claudius justifies his prayers by saying, “Of those effects for which I did the murder- my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.” (3, 3, 57-58) It is then that Claudius comes to the realization that he appears to want forgiveness but on the inside, he can’t give up the position he now holds. Claudius thus realizes that he has to separate his own deceptive illusion from his true feelings, embarking on the age-old question: what is real, and what is apparent.

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The women of Hamlet generate the question of appearance versus reality in several parts of the play. Ophelia and Gertrude display deceptive illusions to hide the corruptions of their lives, appearing to be happy. Shakespeare employs appearance versus reality to hide the feelings and emotions of certain characters, such as Ophelia. Ophelia shields her love for Hamlet at the beginning of the play but eventually is forced to exaggerate her emotions at her father’s request. She has to appear affectionate towards Hamlet so that her father can prove to the king that Hamlet’s madness is due to his rejected love of Ophelia. Hamlet suspects that Ophelia’s love is not genuine, and begins treating her harshly. He displays acts of cruelty towards Ophelia, when he says, “Go thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3, 1, 131-132) At this point, he appears to hate Ophelia, which causes Ophelia to have an emotional breakdown.

This could’ve been prevented if Ophelia was able to see that Hamlet’s behaviour is illusive, and not real. Gertrude also displays deception to hide the corruption in her life. She refuses to accept the truth when Hamlet tells her that Claudius is a murderer. “Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear. Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?” (3, 4, 73-74) Hamlet tells his mother that her husband killed the old kind to attain the throne. Despite Hamlet’s strong will to make her believe the truth, Gertrude forces herself to be happy, despite the circumstances. At this point of the story, it seems as though her whole life is an illusion, by the fact that she is not willing to accept anything that will make her unhappy. This brings into question the whole idea of appearance versus reality. Is anything portrayed by Gertrude genuinely real? Or is it all appearance masking reality?

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The character that best exemplifies the question of appearance versus reality is Hamlet. Hamlet acts mad to create the illusion that he is insane, concealing his true intentions and emotions. Hamlet’s true aspiration is to avenge his father’s death, and he is determined to reach his goal, although his procrastination does slow down the process. With the progression of the play, Hamlet becomes increasingly cruel and cold-hearted. He kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without any feelings of remorse. This fills Laertes, Polonius’ son with great anger, which puzzles Hamlet. He gets so caught up in his emotions and plans that he doesn’t realize the reason for Laerte’s rage. He only later realizes why Laertes is so upset. He puts the blame of Polonius’ murder on his madness when he says, “If Hamlet from himself be taken away, and when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it, then? His madness. I’d be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged; His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” (5, 2, 231-235) In this quote, Hamlet is telling Horatio that the madness was in him when he killed Polonius.

The separation between Hamlet and the madness that at times overtakes him proves that the madness is mere appearance. Hamlet’s madness is also an illusion to conceal his true feelings of Ophelia. Hamlet harasses Ophelia, a woman he loves, with harsh words and actions. Yet, at her funeral, he says, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum” (5.1.280-282) This brings into question the illusion Hamlet created earlier on in the play with his actions towards Ophelia. It further proves that what he appeared to be feeling was not true and that in reality he really loved Ophelia. Hamlet continually masks his true emotions in the play to an extent where the philosophical question of appearance versus reality comes into mind. Which of his actions are truly real and which are merely an illusion?

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Hamlet is a play dominated by lies, corruption and deception. As the story progresses, it seems like no one can express what their true motives are, whether they are doing it consciously or unconsciously. Appearance is used often in Hamlet to protect the characters from the truth. All characters appear to feel one way, but in reality, they are thinking the opposite inside. This brings one to the question of appearance versus reality. What is genuinely real and what is merely an illusion, or appearance? Would the characters in the play ever portray their own true thoughts and feelings or always mask it behind deceptive illusions? These questions are of great significance in philosophy and are endless in response. In essence, Shakespeare effectively shows that reality can often be masked by appearance.

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Appearance vs. Reality in Hamlet. (2021, Jun 10). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from