Shakespeare’s Hamlet is full of a seeming technique, which highlights the tensions or gaps between appearance and reality. That is, how things seem to be in appearance and the reality behind the complex screen of appearances among characters and events.
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One can identify appearance and reality in the whole play as depicted by deceit demonstrated by different characters. Shakespeare creates characters who act behind the veil of deceitfulness. Characters’ actions may appear to be real, but they are not.
Hamlet himself is a great dissembler alongside Claudius. “Seeming” is an issue in Hamlet’s relationships with Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and even with his mother, Gertrude. This essay shall analyze Hamlet and demonstrate the theme of deceit as it engages the conflicts that surround the tensions or gaps between appearance and reality.
Deceit in Appearance and Reality
Shakespeare presents the theme of reality and appearance at the beginning of the play to highlight conflicts and tensions in the play. Shakespeare depicts Hamlet as a character who does not know what reality is, unable to believe anything or avenge his father’s death.
However, Hamlet applies reasoning to solve the murder by testing Claudius to determine if he was responsible for the old King Hamlet’s death. Readers may notice Hamlet’s struggle to solve the problem logically. He is unable to believe the ghost. The king drives deceit in the play alongside other characters like Laertes.
Consequently, he comes up with a plan to discover the truth. The audience knows that King Hamlet did not die of snakebite. The reality is that the new King of Denmark, Claudius poisoned the old King Hamlet. However, appearance is that all the characters believe that the old King died of snakebite. This presents the idea of reality and appearance in the play.
Readers have noticed that Claudius actions during the old King Hamlet’s death are just forms of appearance. He puts up an appearance of caring and grief for his brother’s death. One can notice this through his speech to the court when he says that, “and that it us befitted to bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom, to be contracted in one brow of woe” (Shakespeare 3).
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Claudius also refers to his late brother as “a dear brother” (Shakespeare 4). In reality, the audience knows that these actions are just appearances. Claudius murdered the old King Hamlet. The audience can also notice this when Claudius is praying. He prays as “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, a brother’s murder” (Shakespeare 6).
The love between Gertrude and Claudius is also an example of reality and appearance. At the beginning of the play, Claudius shows his love for Gertrude. However, he later reveals that Gertrude is also among the reasons he killed the old King Hamlet. Claudius puts up the appearance of loving Gertrude.
Hamlet discovers the reality behind the old King’s death and becomes unsettled. The dead King addresses Hamlet to seek revenge from a most unnatural death. From Hamlet’s response, one can infer that he is curious to know the reality behind the murder.
Thus, he says, “Haste me to know that I, with wings as swift, like meditation or the thoughts of love may sweep to my revenge” (Shakespeare 20). Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s desire for revenge as strong like love. This desire is immediate and disturbs Hamlet deeply.
Shakespeare also presents appearance and reality in Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet knows that his mother is putting an appearance in mourning his dead father. Readers know only Hamlet in the family who is, in reality, mourning the old King. Hamlet knows that his mother is showing outward signs of grief. All the signs of mourning are mere appearances and far from real grief.
The ghost in Hamlet also presents appearance and reality to highlight deceit in the play. The ghost bears reality but appears as an apparition. However, Hamlet learns the truth from the ghost. The ghost reveals to Hamlet the cause of his father’s death. This comes from the statements that “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Shakespeare 25). However, Hamlet does not believe the ghost.
He comes up with an appearance of madness to know if it is real. Guildenstern says that “But with a crafty madness keeps aloof when we would bring him on to some confession of this true state” (Shakespeare 29). Hamlet can only seek revenge through appearing as mad. The relationship between appearance and reality becomes vague as Hamlet’s madness takes the form of reality.
He tells Ophelia that, “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but shall relish” (Shakespeare 28). This shows that even Ophelia cannot distinguish the appearance in Hamlet’s madness and he assumes that it is real.
Shakespeare also depicts deceit in love between Hamlet and Ophelia by using reality and appearance. This love has two opposing sides. When Hamlet assumes madness, he appears to neglect Ophelia and tells her that “You should not have believed me, I loved you not” (Shakespeare 30).
However, we notice the love Hamlet has for Ophelia after her death when Hamlet says that “I lov’d Ophelia: forty thousand brothers, Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum” (Shakespeare 30).
The instance of a play-within-a-play presents appearance and reality. Hamlet organizes a play to present acts that happened. Claudius does not believe that Hamlet will use the play to reveal that he is responsible for the death of the old King Hamlet. He says that “For murder, though it has no tongue will speak with most miraculous organ. Before my uncle, I observe his looks; if I do blench, I will know my course” (Shakespeare 27).
This play-within-a-play is significant in shaping relations with the King. Hamlet carefully directs the play through controlling emotions and expression. He tells his actors that only uncivilized “groundlings” get impressions by excessive acting. The murder of Priam by Pyrrhus reveals the whole reality to Claudius.
This play reveals what Hamlet already knows about the death of old King Hamlet. Therefore, Shakespeare believed that acting should reflect realities of life, but with the moderation of the acts.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two characters who also highlight the gap between reality and appearance. The audience can mistake them as Hamlet’s friends through the choice of their words. For instance, they refer to Hamlet as “My honored lord! And My most dear lord!” (Shakespeare29).
We know that these are just Claudius workers who are trying to help Claudius to murder Hamlet. However, Hamlet realizes their motives and shows that he does not trust both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In this regard, Hamlet refers to them as “my two schoolfellows, whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d” (Shakespeare 27).
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All characters except Laertes demonstrate appearance and reality. Although Laertes is a minor character, he has importance in the drama. He is a loyal and honorable character who has inner conflicts. He has virtues above all characters. As fate has it, he also dies like other characters, probably because of his virtue.
In the entire play, deceitfulness among characters creates many discrepancies and gaps in appearance and reality. Most characters appear real, but they have ulterior motives alongside deception.
Shakespeare develops deceit as intertwined with appearance and reality in the play so well that all characters must question everything to understand the truth. Characters cannot easily know the truth because of their appearance in their relationships. The gap between appearance and reality hides the truth from characters and creates tension in the play. The plots of the drama rely on appearance and reality.
As the Hamlet says, appearance is deceiving, and things are not the way they seem to appear. In the entire play, all characters appear as real and honest. However, in reality, they have ulterior motives and depict duplicity. Deceitfulness and appearance create tension among characters as they plot their secret acts.
Shakespeare shows that it was pointless for Hamlet to seek for the truth in a state of Denmark, which was never truthful. Appearance and reality differ, and in the end, reality must rupture, and characters must face the consequences of their action, including the virtuous Laertes.
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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Washington, DC: Washington Square Press, 1992. Print.