The Reality of Appearances in Hamlet
Within Hamlet the notion of appearances (through apparitions and mental afflictions) lies in direct dichotomy of reality. This becomes evident through both plot and character. The continual demise in Hamlet’s mental state is an important issue which leads us to question his actions and motives within the play. In this essay I shall be attempting to elucidate how the reality of appearances is a central theme.
The play's plot is full of incidents and events that are not what they appear to be. One such incident is Ophelia's ambiguous death. When, from the Queen, the audience first learns of her passing, the girl's death seems very peaceful, poetic and accidental. But later, during the Graveyard Scene, when the clowns are discussing her death, they classify it as a suicide. Does Ophelia, as it appears, absent-mindedly set foot too far into the murky waters and, held down by her heavy garments, meets with her untimely death? Or, does she, mad with grief caused by Hamlet's "insanity" and her father's death, willingly march to her muddy grave? Another example occurs when Laertes, Ophelia's brother, and King Claudius devise the Triple-Pronged plan. They set up a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Since both young men are presumably using bated swords, this confrontation appears to be a simple, ordinary fencing match, no one will get hurt. Despite its harmless appearance, this duel proves deadly, for not only does Laertes plan to use an unbated and poisoned sword, but Claudius also prepares a poisoned drink for Hamlet.
There are also many spy plots set up during the play which may also be considered as deceiving events. These spy plots demonstrate the appearance versus reality theme since they are invisible to the spied upon, but weave a web of dishonesty. In Act II, Scene 1, Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Polonius does not trust his own son. Later, Hamlet directs a play entitled "The Mouse Trap" in order to spy on the King, Claudius. He does this to know whether or not Claudius is guilty of his own brother's murder. Hamlet is by far the most observed character throughout the play. Claudius first calls upon two of Hamlet's old friends, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern. He asks them to try to find the source of Hamlet's "madness". Polonius and the King himself later spy on Hamlet. This time, they use Ophelia to try to expose the reason of Hamlet's "madness". Another spy scene occurs in the Closet Scene when Polonius eavesdrops on Hamlet and the Queen. This proves fatal for the old lord chamberlain. Through Ophelia's death, the Triple-Pronged plan, and the various spy plots, the audience becomes aware of the beguiling nature of Hamlet's plot.
Shakespeare also used the characters in Hamlet to explore the theme of appearance versus reality. For example, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern appear to be Hamlet's friends but they are, in reality,...