The theme of appearance versus reality in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet is one of the most predominant and important themes established at the very beginning of the story and carries throughout the entirety of the play. The truth behind each character is buried deep beneath their innocent appearances, so much that it makes it very difficult for the main character Hamlet to find the truth behind his father’s death. Appearance versus reality is shown most in the three main characters of King Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet, where they each try to deceive one another to achieve the same goal of finding reality.
Firstly, this major theme is shown in the character Claudius, the King, from the start. Claudius is the new king of Denmark, the uncle and now step-father to Hamlet (who already dislikes him for his incestuous transition between roles) when marrying Queen Gertrude who was also the wife of his brother, the former king. It begins in the opening of Act 1, commencing with the ghost of the previous king, King Hamlet, appearing to Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo where they then go to tell Hamlet of seeing his father’s apparition. When Hamlet speaks to it, the ghost tells him that Claudius is the one that murdered him by pouring poison in his ear while he was asleep and took the throne. In act 1 scene 5, it quotes,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but I know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown. (I.V.36-40)
This upsets Hamlet even more, and when the news that actors are coming to put on a play for them spreads around, he comes up with an idea to suggest a play to them that re-enacts his father’s death in front of Claudius to see his reaction and test if the ghost was the devil or actually his father trying to help him. When Claudius sees the play, he reacts poorly, proving his guilt over his brother’s death, sparking the obviousness that his trustworthy and heroic personality is just to hide his true past. In the king’s soliloquy about his guilt, he states, “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s murder.” (III.III.37-39).
Claudius pretends to be a kind father figure to Hamlet, encouraging him to stay in the kingdom so that he can watch over him, but in reality, Claudius knows that if Hamlet finds out the truth behind his father’s murder then Hamlet will kill Claudius in revenge. After Hamlet’s play is presented, Hamlet begins his journey along the theme of appearance versus reality by pretending to go insane, which deceives the king in knowing whether or not Hamlet has made the discovery of the truth, all while Hamlet is still piecing together the whole situation.
Secondly, this theme is greatly shown in the character of Polonius, who is the father to Laertes and Ophelia. To the audience, it appears that he is very caring, loving, and genuinely concerned for the kingdom, but what we can see from the way he treats his son compared to his daughter is that this is in fact just a mask he wears – especially when he is not with Ophelia.
In the third scene of act one, we can see the difference in the way he speaks to either of his children: to Laertes, he says, “Yet here, Laertes! Aboard, aboard, for shame! The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!” (I.III.55-57). Compared to Ophelia, which is stated merely a few lines later, he says:
Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby,
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or … you’ll tender me a fool. (I.III.105-109).
The difference in his character between the two children shows his reality with the situation involving Hamlet investigating the murder. Since Polonius is the king’s right-hand man, he is aware that Hamlet has gone “mad” and does not want Ophelia becoming involved with someone like him. Another example is on the same page where Polonius states, “Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers, … But mere implorators of unholy suits,” (I.III.127-129). Here, he explains to Ophelia that Hamlet does not love her, just lusts for her, convincing her not to interact with him any longer. The irony in this situation is that Polonius is very aware of Hamlet’s undying love for Ophelia which may have fueled his madness.
Lastly, the character that demonstrates the theme of appearance versus reality is the main character, Hamlet. This is one of the most obvious topics within the play because it is such a large portion of the plot that stems into other themes, such as madness and betrayal, as it becomes the main controversial topic discussed about the play: did Hamlet actually go mad?
Sometimes when an actor becomes too invested in their role, it has shown that they may actually develop the habits and become one with the character they’re pretending to be. As Hamlet pretends to go mad in response to his findings about his father’s death, he masks his true intentions against the king, and it is argued that he may have truly gone mad in the process. This is shown in his character development from the first act to the third when he accidentally kills Polonius. After the death of the king’s right hand man, the Queen states:
Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier.
And in this brainish apprehension kills
The unseen good old man. (IV.I.7-12).
This is a prime example of appearance versus reality because in the first acts of the play, Hamlet is proven to be indecisive and contemplative of everything he does: he overthinks, and his mind wanders to the point where he isn’t even sure if he is capable of killing himself as a result of being unable to build the courage to kill the king in revenge. The famous lines “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” (III.I.57) come from his inability to decide on his own suicide when he believe he is incapable of completing his task.
In conclusion, the play Hamlet by Shakespeare shows a great deal of appearance versus reality across all characters, but primarily in the trio of King Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet. It is arguably the most occurring theme throughout the play, and since every character is involved in the participation of distorting reality, it drives the plot to reveal what’s been hiding all along; the truth.