Appearance vs. Reality in Hamlet
Shakespeares Hamlet is the tale of a young prince determined to uncover the
truth about his fathers recent death. Hamlets uncle (and also the deceased kings
brother), Claudius, marries his mother the queen, and therefore, takes the throne. In the
beginning of the story, Hamlet is told by the apparition of his dead father that it was
Claudius who in fact murdered him. The theme that remains consistent throughout the
tragedy is appearance versus reality. The characters introduced to us throughout the play
appear to be pure and honest, but in reality are infested with evil. They deceitfully hide
behind a mask of integrity. Four main dishonest characters which are found to be
disguised with righteousness are Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the freshly
crowned king Claudius. The first impression presented by these characters are ones of
truth, honor, and morality; they are all plagued by evilness and lies in reality. Their
appearances serve as obstacles for Hamlet as he struggles to discover the hidden truth.
The kings royal assistant, Polonius, has a great preoccupation with appearance.
He continually gives the impression of being an affectionate and caring person. He is
introduced as a father who deeply cares for his son, Laertes. Polonius speaks to Laertes
with advice which sounds sincere, yet in truth, is rehearsed, empty, and without feeling.
He gives the advice to make others believe he is a strong, loving, role-model type of a
father. He is similar to a politician. He speaks strong, influential words, but does not
actually mean what he is saying sincerely in the least. Polonius grants his son his blessing
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell; my blessing season this in thee! (Hamlet 46).
Within his speech to Laertes, Polonius advises him to not borrow from others, to remain
true to himself, and not to lie. Polonius appears to be a caring and trusting father when in
fact he sends a spy after Laertes to follow and keep an eye on him. This demonstrates his
distrust for his son. He is not the confident father in which he is shown to be. His speech
was rehearsed to give the effect that he actually cares and is trustworthy of his son.
Polonius further adds to the theme of appearance versus reality when he orders his
daughter, Ophelia, to stop seeing Hamlet. He mischieviously lies to her, claiming that
Hamlet does not love her, that he only lusts for her: Ay, springs to catch woodcocks. I
do know, When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul (Hamlet 47). Throughout the
play, Polonius is seen as a warm and tender parent. Behind the mask, he is a devious,
lying, and manipulative person. Polonius obviously contributes to the theme of
appearance versus reality by illustrating that his virtuous appearance is not true in nature,
because underneath the facade he is someone completely different.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlets closest friends from childhood.
They follow the kings instructions when asked to figure out what is troubling Hamlet.
The two go to Hamlet with the illusion of being friends with Hamlet, but in truth are
simply there to abide by the kings orders. Their inquiry of his problems are not sincere.
There is some irony in this situation; the boys are asked to discover the truth while hiding
in a lie of pretending to be Hamlets true friends. As Hamlet realizes their underhanded
motives, he states, A dream itself is but a shadow (Hamlet 73). Hamlet understands
that they are not the good friends he assumed they were. The king sends Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern again to try to gain an explanation for Hamlets awkward behavior.
Hamlet recognizes their intentions once again and proceeds to insult them: It is as easy
as lying. Govern these ventages with your finger and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth… (Hamlet 106). It is evident to see how these two buddies of Hamlet add to
the appearance versus reality theme.
The conduct wonderfully presented by Claudius, the new king of Denmark,
illustrates him as an honest and heartfelt man. In Act One, Claudius demonstrates his
great skill at public speaking as he is in the presence of council:
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brothers death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe (Hamlet 33).
The reality of the situation is that Claudius cares little for his brother and his death. He is
just happy to be at the head of the thrown; something he had previously longed for. He
speaks respectfully and honorably of him and on his behalf only to be looked upon as a
In Act One, Hamlet directly insults Claudius, and yet the king continues the front
of being caring and truly affectionate towards his nephew. A normal king (or any
authority figure) would become angry an punish anyone who would degrade them in any
way. Claudius demonstrates to his council that he is understanding of Hamlets grievances
over his deceased father. He advises Hamlet that grieving can be harmful and not healthy.
He reinforces that it is respectable and honorable of Hamlet to morn for his father:
Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father.
But you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness (Hamlet 37).
Claudius further makes it difficult for Hamlet to reveal the truth about the murder
of his father when Claudius announces that Hamlet shall be next in line for the throne of
Denmark. This demonstrates Claudius apparent love and trust in Hamlet, that he would
allow him to take his place when he dies. He seems to be an honorable and virtuous man
when he declares this: You are the most immediate to our throne, and with no less
nobility of love than that which dearest father bears his son do I impart toward you
All in all, Claudius appears to be a trustworthy king who would do anything for his
kingdom. In truth, although, he is a selfish and greedy brother. He desired all his brother
once had. He coveted his wife and tried to be a father-figure for his son. He wanted all
being a king had to offer, and he achieved his position through the murder of his own flesh
and blood. Behind his pure and moral mask, laid a monstrous and deceitful man.
By reading the tragedy, Hamlet, one can reveal that the four characters mentioned
in this essay (Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Claudius) are completely
two-faced. They follow the theme of appearance versus reality specifically. Each give the
first impression of being true to their intentions, honest, and pure. It is uncovered
throughout the play that they are all devious and cunning. These characters are
impediments to Hamlet, as he fights to discover the truth which haunts him.