Appearance versus Reality in “Hamlet”
A discussion of the theme of appearance versus reality in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
In Hamlet, Elsinore is a society which people are seen acting in a deceitful manner in order to gain personal measures and prestige. These people mask their true in intentions to acquire selfish desires. In doing so they develop a theme of the discrepancy between the way things appear and their true realities. Hamlet, on the other hand, is an honest, moral individual trapped in this deceitful society.
Hamlet is faced with the dilemma to either lower himself to their level by utilizing deception, or leave wrongs unrighted by remaining true to himself. In Hamlet, the theme of appearance versus reality is prevalent in Hamlet1s decision between his morals and his father as he decides to utilize the deceit of his society, starts recognizing it in others and finally in using it to avenge his father.
When Hamlet is introduced he is seen acting as he feels and this is what prevents him from repaying in kind for his father1s murder.
Hamlet grieves over the loss of his father so long and intensely that no one understands, for Gertrude and Claudius tell him he needs to move on like they have done, yet Hamlet can’t understand this. His actions are reflections of his true feelings while the rest of his peers seem to be ignoring their grief. When Hamlet finds out that he is supposed to kill Claudius for his father he becomes distraught. This is because Hamlet1s morals won’t allow him to kill even if it releases Old Hamlet from his purgatory. He later realizes that he must start appearing differently than usual in order to carry out his father1s word. Hamlet decides to put on an “antic disposition” and in doing so has started becoming deceitful. He is trying to mask his true feelings in order to prepare himself for his dilemma.
When Hamlet starts being deceitful he starts to recognize the deceit in others and how they make themselves appear differently from their realities. Hamlets decision to put on an “antic disposition” was not honest to himself but he felt that he must appear differently than he feels to fulfill his needs. Hamlet first recognizes the deceit in Claudius after his father visits. Claudius committed the sin of fratricide (especially horrendous in this Christian society); but was now enjoying the fruits of his sin at the cost of his community. He tricked Elsinore into thinking he was a good king who stepped in to save the kingdom, yet in reality he was the cause of all the trouble. Claudius knew he had done wrong, for he later laments his action, but was now just, “smile[ing], and smile[ing], and be[ing] a villain”(IV 108). Hamlet now had to choose to either disgrace his society by allowing a fake and murderer to rule or to correct the unknown wrong.
Secondly Hamlet suspected Rosencrantz and Guildendtern of being manipulated by the deceptive king, so he checked the letters on the way to England. In doing so he uncovered the fact that they weren1t the true friends they appeared to be. Hamlet found out that the king had ordered for him to be executed so he changed the letter to order the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead.
Thus, Hamlet was now merging with his society by utilizing deceit in order to kill and to find answers to his problems and questions. This 3antic disposition2 was more a characteristic of his society than of Hamlet but he felt it was necessary to cleanse his society of this evil ruler. Hamlet could finally allow himself to kill because of this deceit.
In III.4 Hamlet finally tries to kill the king while talking to his mother. Hamlet had actually killed Polonioius, but he knew that he now had the ability to kill Claudius. The lack of remorse Hamlet expresses over the deaths of Polonious, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show the differences between his original grief stricken appearance and his new reality. However, even though he was more deceitful, he was still not completely changed from his original instinctively trusting self. This is seen when Hamlet accepts Laertes1 challenge after he witnessed the situation between himself and Elsinore getting tense throughout his 3antic disposition.
2 He naively accepts the duel and in doing so he gets poisoned. To Hamlet the duel appeared as a recreational event but he reality was that it killed him. When Hamlet finds out about the poisoned sword and wine he finally kills Claudius, making him drink the wine, just as Claudius had done to his mother and father. The deaths of Polonious, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius, who were all, 3Hoist[ed] by their own petar[s],2 show that it is better to be truthful than deceitful; for ones1 wicked ways will catch them. Hamlet was originally an idealist who believed he lived in a place where appearance was reality but finally realized he was mistaken. Had Hamlet not changed from his original appearance to his final reality, by using deceit, he would have never been able to kill Claudius. However, if he had stayed true to himself he still would have died without purging the corrupt from Elsinore nor avenging his father1s death, thus leaving his father1s kingdom sullied, with no hope for purification.
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