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Appearance vs. Reality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hamlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon

In Act 1, scene 2 of Hamlet, Gertrude asks why Hamlet is still in mourning two months after his father died: "Why seems it so particular with thee?" Hamlet responds: "Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not 'seems.'" (1.2.75-76). The difference between "seems" (appearance) and "is" (reality) is crucial in Hamlet. Every character is constantly trying to figure out what the other characters think, as opposed to what those characters are pretending to think. The characters try to figure each other out by using deception of their own, such as spying and plotting.

But Hamlet takes it a step further. He not only investigates other people, he also peers into his own soul and asks philosophical and religious questions about life and death. Hamlet's obsession with what's real has three main effects: 1) he becomes so caught up in the search for reality that he ceases to be able to act; 2) in order to prove what's real and what isn't Hamlet himself must hide his "reality" behind an "appearance" of madness; 3) the more closely Hamlet looks, the less real and coherent everything seems to be. Many analyses of Hamlet focus only on the first effect, Hamlet's indecisiveness. But the second two effects are just as important. The second shows that the relationship between appearance and reality is indistinct. The third suggests that the world is founded on fundamental inconsistencies that most people overlook, and that it is this failure to recognize inconsistencies that allows them to act. Hamlet's fatal flaw isn't that he's wrong to see uncertainty in everything, but that he's right.

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Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in Hamlet

Below you will find the important quotes in Hamlet related to the theme of Appearance vs. Reality.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not "seems."
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Gertrude
Page Number: 1.2.79
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet says this line to his mother Gertrude when she inquires why he “seems” to be so dismayed. He corrects her word choice and points out that his sadness is an accurate reflection of his emotional state after his father’s death—rather than an external performance of mourning.

The difference between the truth of interior emotions (“is”) and exterior presentations in a social context (“seems”) is a critical theme throughout Hamlet. Many of the characters hide their true intentions in order to plot against others, and Hamlet’s actions, in particular, are the subject of much skepticism. As he becomes increasingly irrational and distraught, both the other characters and the audience of Shakespeare’s work are tasked to determine whether these behaviors are appearances or realities.

Hamlet has encapsulated this central concern of the play, here, within the correction of a single verb. The passage points out that while other characters may be more likely to attribute actions to displays of emotion, Hamlet holds a commitment to actual sentiment. Of course, we also must be skeptical of such a line: Perhaps Hamlet’s insistence on the “is” actually reveals just how carefully he coordinates his speeches. But regardless of whether we trust him, it is clear that he and Shakespeare have put high stakes on linguistic precision and the coherence between belief and act.


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Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral bak'd meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio
Page Number: 1.2.87-88
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to rant about Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage. Here, he complains to Horatio about how rapidly their wedding took place after his father’s death.

To do so, Hamlet uses a grotesque image of the same food being served at the funeral and the marriage. What were “bak’d meats” (baked meats) at his father’s death are allowed to chill and then be repurposed for Hamlet's father's widow and brother. This is, of course, not a literal description of what occurred with the meals at each ceremony, but rather a rhetorical way for Hamlet to stress the speed and discourtesy of his mother’s actions. That Hamlet chooses the exclamation “thrift, thrift” brings a darkly economic dimension into the text. The term indicates that Gertrude and Claudius reused the meats in order to save expenses—which would be an offensive choice in the wake of her husband’s death. Thus it is not just speed that falls under critique here, but rather the casual and desensitized way they have acted. The passage stresses both the importance of social norms in Hamlet’s world, but also how flagrantly they have been violated in the specific events of the play.

Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
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.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker), Laertes
Page Number: 1.3.84-86
Explanation and Analysis:

As Laertes departs for France, his father Polonius gives an extensive speech on how he should comport himself abroad. Here, he discusses how Laertes should represent his interior beliefs to others.

These lines are actually some of the most commonly misinterpreted from all of Shakespeare’s work. Looked at in isolation, they seem to recommend that Laertes act with integrity toward others and represent himself perfectly in accord with his interiority. Polonius contends that if he is faithful to his “ownself” internally, then his outward nature “to any man” will be equally honest and correct. Yet earlier in the same speech Polonius tells Laertes, “Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue”—which advises extensive self-control, in which a “character” is monitored and “thoughts” are left un-vocalized when it suits the thinker. Polonius, then, is speaking these later lines with a deep sense of irony: one should be true only in so far as one is in control of one’s thoughts and actions.

It is essential to be on the lookout throughout Hamlet for these types of ironies, particularly when characters are reflecting on questions of performance and integrity. Quite often a few lines in isolation will seem earnest, but when given more context will actually present the speaker as lying or jesting. Thus by professing that there is an internal self to whom Laertes could be true, Polonius only complicates the stakes of identity—and shows even more so how the self is the result of performance and ever-changing construction.

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Related Characters: Marcellus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.4.100
Explanation and Analysis:

Marcellus says this line after watching Hamlet run after the Ghost of his father. He observes, darkly, the negative state of both Hamlet’s mind and the corresponding political situation of Denmark.

Though the line is said in response to Hamlet’s emotional outburst and irrational behavior, it does not place blame on him directly. Rather, it presents his action to be the result of an environmental factor: it is the general “state of Denmark” that holds the “rotten” quality. Yet at the same time Mercellus leaves the source entirely ambiguous with the subject “Something.” That something could be a person like Claudius, or perhaps Hamlet’s madness, or perhaps the Ghost itself, who is driving Hamlet to ruinous action.

Thus Shakespeare’s work leaves undisclosed the precise source of the tragedy: if a more conventional tale would give us specific heroes and villains who are deemed either good or "rotten," the triumph of Hamlet is to leave uncertain who exactly is “rotten.” The line also notably brings a political element to bear on the actions, drawing attention to how Hamlet and his father both have a direct effect on the “state.” Though this is a less-often analyzed strain of the play, it is important to recall the geopolitical developments that form the backdrop of the text. Here, we see foreshadowed the decay of Denmark and the way it will be vulnerable to foreign encroachment.

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
O, villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius
Page Number: 1.5.113
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet converses with the Ghost, he curses both Gertrude and Claudius. Here, he exclaims on how Claudius is deceptive and presents an aura of goodwill despite his evil intent.

It’s worthwhile to track some of Hamlet’s repeated speech formations: once more he uses the interjection “O” to stress the emotional intensity of the phrase, and his triple invocation of “villain” is also characteristic of how he will often repeat words many times to build emphasis. Here, “villain” is first said twice to doubly-inscribe the role to Claudius, after which it is qualified with the mixed descriptor “smiling, damned.” Thus the reader only sees the specific qualities of Claudius behavior after we have been told repeatedly that they are evil.

Those specific qualities return us to the question of how one separates interior identity from exterior presentation. Though Claudius is externally “smiling” and thus presenting a positive, friendly image, he is internally still a “villain.” The term “damned” also adds important information: Claudius is ethically accountable for his actions and fated to a negative fate as a result of them. This term implies, then, that Hamlet believes in a system of moral justice, be it religious or secular, and furthermore stresses that this justice will be imposed based on interior identities, not on the external performance of how one comforts with smiles.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Horatio
Page Number: 1.5.187-188
Explanation and Analysis:

After speaking to the Ghost, Hamlet expresses a skepticism with Horatio’s observation that the ghost is “strange.” Hamlet points out here that Horatio’s way of viewing the world has excluded certain phenomena and experiences and thus has caused him to limit his idea of reality.

To assert this claim, Hamlet notes that Horatio is limited in his perceptions of what exists. This limitation exists in both “heaven and earth,” implying that Horatio is blind to not only things in a different realm (“heaven”) but also to what he could presumably see on “earth,” such as the Ghost. Hamlet implies that a given way of viewing the world prevents us from perceiving even those things all around us. He uses the term “philosophy” rather loosely then—not as a set of metaphysical concepts on, say, the existence of free will or God, but rather something more like a personal philosophy that dictates what is considered “strange” in the world.

The phrase “dreamt of,” after all, positions “philosophy” not as a rational body of thought, but rather something pseudo-scientific or even mystical. Hamlet could very well have said “Than exist in your philosophy,” but instead he chooses to present belief systems as akin to one’s dreams. Thus Hamlet can justify both his own somewhat erratic behavior by rendering it equally valid as a dreamt-of philosophy, and more broadly call into question any reader’s assumptions of the arbitrary separation of normal and strange.

Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.97-99
Explanation and Analysis:

After completing his diplomatic relations with Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius begins to speak about Hamlet’s madness. He introduces the speech with this construction that cherishes and promises concise language.

The phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” is another example of how Shakespeare will invert sentence structures for emphatic and rhetorical effect. Most simply this means, “it is important to be brief in order to be witty”—but Polonius instead makes “brevity” a central, constitutive aspect of “wit,” as opposed to a common feature. Just as Hamlet called women the name of frailty, here Polonius has rendered brevity to be wit’s soul. “Tediousness,” on the other hand, is associated with the external parts of the body—the material that is superficial and extraneous. Polonius uses this phrase to justify and introduce his “brief” speech.

As with many of Polonius’ statements, however, these lines are deeply ironic. Polonius is always a verbose character, and this speech is particularly rambling: he discourses extensive about the nature of Hamlet’s madness without making any particularly useful or incisive contributions. These lines themselves serve to elongate the position—adding “an outward flourish” in the very act of denouncing such a gesture. We should note, furthermore, that Polonius is not interested in “truth” per say, but rather just “wit”—which itself a type of “outward flourish.” On the simplest level, this irony further undermines Polonius’s character, presenting him ever more as an unaware fool. But it also offers a broader comment on how people’s promises and intentions often differ from their actions: One may claim brevity to be the soul of wit while failing to be either brief or witty.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.68-70
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamlet speaks to his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They have tried to express that Denmark is not as bad as Hamlet presents it to be, and in response he notes that the merit in things lies less in their actual existence and more in how they are subjectively experienced.

In the broadest sense, Hamlet is offering a brilliant metaphysical claim about the nature of reality: he is denying that external events are ever “good or bad,” but rather become so based on how one is “thinking.” It is not clear, in this case, whether Hamlet believes one can actively will via “thinking” for something to become positive or negative—or if he fatalistically believes that whatever one’s mental state is will determine if something is “good or bad.” Most likely, the second option is the case here, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have tried to shift his “thinking,” but Hamlet presents his interpretation of reality as pre-determined. This sort of nihilistic explanation may seem commonplace now, but it was certainly not widespread in Shakespeare’s time—and it is part of the reason for Hamlet’s lasting legacy as an early account of modern human psychology. Furthermore, this comment stresses that while Hamlet may seem to be descending increasingly into madness, that process has also given him a certain type of insight into the reality of the world.

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.273-275
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to reflect on whether his happiness is primarily based on his disposition or events occurring in the external environment. Here, he points out that joy would come easily to him except for the psychic baggage of negative dreams.

What exactly Hamlet means by “bad dreams” is, however, far from clear. Hamlet is often fixated on his and others’ dreams, for they exist on the borderline of reality. They thus seem to introduce foreign or irrational concepts into daily life—here ones that prevent one from living peacefully. Were Hamlet not to have these invasive thoughts, he implies, he would live ignorantly but at peace. “Bounded in a nutshell” functions as a metaphor for a closed and secluded world with no stream of information—and without being tempted by anything exterior, Hamlet would be able to redefine his reality as “a king of infinite space.” His mind could set its own limits and be content and empowered even with an objectively negative situation. Dreams, however, allow one access beyond one’s own reality—so they become a metaphor for escaping the nutshell and then becoming dissatisfied with its cramped surroundings.

Another, slightly narrower, interpretation could see his communication with the Ghost as a sort of dream, for the specter appears only at night and does not speak with any other characters. In that case, Hamlet implies that the Ghost is his “bad dream”: for he introduces the ethical imperative to avenge his father by killing Claudius. In both cases, Hamlet seems nostalgic for a state of lesser awareness in which he could still be that ignorant “king of infinite space.”

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.327-332
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to soliloquize to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about human nature. He first lauds mankind’s many incredible characteristics in accomplishments before tempering his praise by pointing out human mortality.

At first, Hamlet seems to have strikingly changed his tone from his previous condemnations of human nature. Man’s reason is “noble” or honorable and just, while the “infinite” nature of his “faculty” means it can extend beyond mundane occurrences. He then appreciates the external appearance and behaviors of humanity, likening them first to an “angel” and then “a god.” Indeed, at the time humans are considered the most beautiful thing in the world and deemed the “paragon” or best of all animals. The turn comes when Hamlet says that despite all these remarkable characteristics, humans are just “this quintessence of dust”: Their essential quality is neither noble nor beautiful, but just basic material of the earth.

Yet even before the chilling last line, the phrases glimmer with a negative bent. Hamlet shouts with a seemingly ecstatic air, but the obsessive repetition of exclamation marks grows hollow by the eighth repetition—putting the emphasis more on the phrase’s desperation than any sense of real excitement. Likening men to angels or a god may just seem laudatory, but it is also implausible, and so it comes off as parodic or shrill. Hamlet thus pokes fun at the way that humanity has built up a conceited vision of itself, and points out that they are all fundamentally dust: they have come from nothing and, being mortal, will eventually return to that state.

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), First Player
Page Number: 2.2.586-587
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamlet responds to having watched one of the actors perform a speech from the Trojan War, in which Hecuba grieves for her husband Priam. He struggles with his own emotional apathy at his father’s death, considering how intensely the player could exhibit emotion for a fictional grief.

Hamlet’s anxiety here occurs on several levels. First, he is confronting the fact that he has not yet avenged his father. He is distraught that someone who is merely performing grief would seem capable of serious action, whereas he himself deliberates and talks endlessly without having acted. There is thus a disjunction between the “him” of the actor and the historical figure of Hecuba that has caused him to weep—in a way that makes Hamlet feel he should be more capable of weeping.

But the passage also returns us to the questions of performance that have occupied Hamlet throughout the text. After all, he does not presumably believe that the player actually identifies fully with Hecuba—and thus his concern over the weeping has more to do with the fact that humans are able to craft their emotions so effectively. This ability calls into the question anyone’s emotional responses—even his own—for they seem less predicated on actual feelings, if Hamlet’s request that the player take on a role allows him to do so with ease. Hamlet will, of course, make use of this exact quality in the next act, when he puts on a mock play to test Claudius’s response, so he is far from dispensing with the performative aspect of emotions. Rather, Shakespeare shows us a character struggling to make sense of the disconnect between interior and exterior—here with the artifice of theater itself.

The play's the thing,
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.633-634
Explanation and Analysis:

As Act Two ends, Hamlet’s settles on a plan to determine whether Claudius is guilty: he proposes to stage an altered version of The Murder of Gonzago, which will have much in common with the story the Ghost recounted of his murder. Thus by watching Claudius’s response, Hamlet hopes to ascertain his guilt.

That Hamlet sees theater as the way to best access human truth is somewhat ironic. The art form would seem to epitomize performance and deceit, for it shows just how easily people can take on alternate identities and emotions. Yet this is the exact quality of theater that Hamlet seeks to exploit, for staging the play in a certain way will allow it to function as a trap for “the conscience.” Artificiality, he implies, can serve as a route to honesty if properly exploited.

The comment also has meta-textual implications for the play, for if Hamlet is using The Murder of Gonzago to his advantage, he is himself on trial within Shakespeare’s tragedy. Yet things are not so clear cut in Shakespeare’s work: in a sense, the characters remain caught in his artifice, displaying their “conscience” for the viewer. But at the same time their mixed motives and allegiances resist our interpretive abilities—we remain uncertain whether Hamlet is mad or whether Claudius is fully guilty—thus questioning the limits of an artwork to reveal the truth of a conscience.

Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Ophelia
Page Number: 3.1.131-134
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ophelia tries to return a set of gifts Hamlet has given her, he renounces their relationship. He first disparages Ophelia for her lack of honesty, and then implicates himself as the cause of moral wrongdoing.

This passage is another striking example of how Hamlet’s apparent insanity covers up complex reflections on human nature and society. His general claim is that Ophelia should not continue to propagate the species, for all men are sinners even if they are generally honest and well-intentioned. Yet instead of expressing this statement directly, Hamlet couches it in the lunatic demand that Ophelia enter a “nunnery”: a place where should would be celibate and therefore unable to “be a breeder of sinners,” or give birth to more children.

Though this passage might be interpreted in passing as chastising Ophelia for her sins, Hamlet’s claim is actually based on his own transgressions. He notes, in a somewhat roundabout manner, that others could consider his actions reprehensible despite his “indifferent honest” behavior: “indifferent” in that he remains relatively passive, and “honest” in that any sins are supposedly driven by a strong moral compass. Yet, Hamlet reasons, if even his disposition makes him worthy of accusation, then presumably other similar men are sinners, and Ophelia should not risk giving birth to one of them. Shakespeare, here, shows how Hamlet’s nihilistic images of the world are a fascinating mixture of compelling and irrational. The logic makes sense and carries deep philosophical weight, while being simultaneously insensitive and outrageous. The two, Shakespeare shows us, can quite easily coexist.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery ... 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Page Number: 3.2.393-402
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet responds angrily to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here, believing correctly that they are agents from his mother. He rejects their support as manipulative and asserts his own autonomy.

To criticize his friends’ actions, Hamlet uses a series of images of instruments, each of which position Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as seeking to “play upon” Hamlet. “My stops” refers to the holes in a recorder or flute, also called a “fret,” while “pluck” calls up a stringed instrument such as a lute (which also has "frets"). By mixing a variety of different instruments, Hamlet points out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s tactics are lacking in specificity. It does not matter which metaphor they select, or which type of instrument they imagine Hamlet to be. They may “fret” him—a pun on playing an instrument, but also provoking frustration or angst—but he refuses to produce the corresponding music.

Hamlet demonstrates with these images his understanding of the game being played by his friends: he resists manipulation by pointing out that their effects are foolhardy. And his references to art are striking, considering the way that theater has been used to make sense of human duplicity and manipulation. Shakespeare thus present the arts as a way for the characters to conceptualize human interaction—to theorize, grasp, and fight against the way we try to control each other.

Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Related Characters: Claudius (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.102-103
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet enters into Claudius’s chambers, intending to kill him, but decides against it when he sees him praying. Yet after Hamlet exits, Claudius reveals here that his prayers were in vain, for they were mere words without the associated repentant thoughts.

These lines return to the theme of external presentation and internal identity, here by approaching the question of language. Claudius points out that “words” and the “thoughts” they convey are not necessarily linked, for the language may “fly up” with the intent to access the heavens, while their contents “remain below” in an earthly, or even hellish, realm. This is a clever explanation of what it means to lie, and Claudius points out that while such a separation of word and meaning might be effective in human interactions, it does not at all function in prayer. When he says “Words without thought never to heaven go,” he repeats the exact same words from the previous line to show that while his language may “fly up,” it will not actually reach its destination in “heaven.” Thus a repenting prayer is deemed to require a higher truth-value than human communication, because divinities are able to correctly recognize when content and language—interior and exterior—have been divorced.

Beyond rendering ironic Hamlet’s decision to not kill the praying Claudius, this passage also gives us important information about the spiritual belief systems of the characters. Even the sinner Claudius, who does not repent, is shown to be aware of the consequences of his actions. Thus the characters hold a continued belief in divine destiny that can see through performances to some kind of interior truth.