Reality And Illusion In Shakespeare's Hamlet The Deception Of Appearance

2172 words - 9 pages

Appearance versus Reality in Hamlet

       Hamlet is organized around various pairs of opposing forces. One of these forces is the difference between that what seems and that which actually is, in other words, appearance versus reality. What is, and what merely appears to be? We can discern two principal angles from which this question is approached in Hamlet. First, we have the angle of inward and outward emotions, and the profound distinction that is drawn between them. In other words, the tranquil face that we all show to the world is never the same as the turmoil of our souls. In Hamlet, Shakespeare explores this both explicitly, through the device of the play within the play, and implicitly, through the ways in which he uses the forms and conventions of theater to explore the aforementioned emotional dichotomy. There is also the dichotomy of knowledge that is essential to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. God, in this tradition, is considered to be omniscient, and thus knows how all things actually are. Mere human beings, on the other hand, can only, as in Plato's allegory of the cave, know how things seem. They have only flawed knowledge. Over the course of Hamlet, we repeatedly perceive characters who focus on things that seem, as well as those who focus on what actually is. This dichotomy is fundamental to our understanding of the play.


Before launching into the body of this exposition, it is necessary that we define a few important terms. By "being", or that which "actually is", I mean those things that exist in the objective reality that might be perceived by some so-called omnipotent being. The flawed knowledge of non-omniscient humans - that which we see every day - is represented by the word "seem" and forms thereof.


That which seems, in Hamlet, is in flux. We can think that anything we want to exist exists, regardless of the objective truth. In fact, some philosophers have stated that there is no objective external reality, and our perceptions define the world (Berkeley) - while Shakespeare's view is not so extreme, it comes close. This is best exhibited in the oracular nature of certain characters, namely the couple of Hamlet and Ophelia. We can examine the dialogue between Polonius and Hamlet in Act II, Scene ii (171-219). Hamlet's speech here consists of only loosely connected ideas. His speech is full of non sequiturs and facts that are clearly wrong, as we see here:


Polonius. Do you know me, my lord?

Hamlet. Excellent well. You are a fishmonger.

Polonius. Not I, my lord.

Hamlet. Then I would you were so honest a man.

Polonius. Honest, my lord?

Hamlet. Ay, sir. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand. (2.2.173-179)


Polonius is, of course, not a fishmonger. Hamlet's motivation for speaking about honesty here is at best unclear. And why Hamlet suddenly spits out deep philosophical truths - as he does in the final line...

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