Hamlet is full of references to the wide gulf that often exists between how things appear and how they really are. From Hamlet’s own “craft[ed]” madness to Claudius’s many schemes and plots involving Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern to the very foundation of Denmark’s political stability (or lack thereof), things within Elsinore castle are hardly ever as they seem. Hamlet’s characters’ collective desire to make sense of the difference between what’s real and what’s not drives them to deception, cruelty, and indeed even madness. In acting mad, Hamlet succeeds in driving himself mad; in pretending to spurn Hamlet’s affections, Ophelia actually creates a searing rift between them; in trying to ignore the fact that her new husband murdered her old one, Gertrude forgets the truth and abandons her moral compass. Ultimately, Shakespeare makes the slightly metaphysical argument that the desire to determine which aspects of a person’s character or actions are “real” or intentional actually serves to expose the fact that there is, perhaps, sometimes no difference between what is real and what is perceived; the identities people perform and the choices they make, even in jest, become their realities.
Throughout the play, many of the major characters find themselves confounded by the gulf between how things appear to be and how they really are—even as they themselves engage in subterfuge and masquerades in repeated attempts to present themselves other than as they are, or deliberately mislead one another. Hamlet is the most egregious example of this behavior—he pretends to be mad in order to confuse the members of court at Elsinore and make them believe he’s crazy or blind to what’s going on at the castle, so that he can more sneakily investigate Claudius and come to a conclusion about whether or not his uncle really did murder his father. In his attempts to pass himself off as mad, Hamlet spurns, denigrates, and verbally harasses Ophelia and his mother, Gertrude; entangles two of his old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a wild goose chase that leads to their deaths; and berates, offends, and condemns Gertrude as he attempts to ascertain her complicity (or lack thereof) in King Hamlet’s demise. Even as Hamlet deceives those around him in an attempt to save his own skin, he worries incessantly about the guises others adopt to survive at court. He lambasts Ophelia—and, by proxy, all women—for wearing makeup on their faces, accusing them of presenting themselves other than as they are. He makes fun of Polonius’s wormy, fawning obsequiousness to the king and queen, even though he knows it is the job of courtiers and councilors to serve the monarchy. He calls out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as players in his mother and uncle’s plot to get to the root of his own (false) madness, even though he knows they, too are at the mercy of royalty, unable to refuse the demands of their rulers. Hamlet’s constant anxiety about being lied to, or merely shown a version of reality that runs counter to the truth, is the subject of several length monologues and soliloquies—but ultimately, Hamlet’s endless inquiries into the morality of constructed appearances lead nowhere: at the end of the day, he is complicit in his own worst fears.
Other characters who bring into question the gulf between appearance and reality include the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia. The ghost of Hamlet’s father claims to be the late King Hamlet—but Hamlet himself has reservations about the ghost’s true nature which are further called into question when the ghost appears to Hamlet a second time inside of Gertrude’s chambers. Gertrude claims to not be able to see the ghost, allowing for several possibilities: the ghost may indeed be a figment of Hamlet’s own imagination, or Gertrude may be pretending not to be able to see the ghost for fear of admitting to her complicity in his murder (or simply her indifference to marrying his killer to retain her own political position). The ghost itself tampers with the denizens of Elsinore’s ideas about “reality,” inspiring awe and fear in Horatio, Marcellus, and other watchmen and sentinels. Gertrude, meanwhile, appears innocent and ignorant of her husband’s murder—but she may, in reality, be affecting innocence just as Hamlet affects madness as a cover for a darker motive. Polonius, too, is guilty of presenting a version of himself that runs counter to the truth of who he is: he makes claims about himself and offers advice that contradict his own actions, such as when he tells Laertes “to thine own self be true,” contradicting his own behavior as a fawning courtier loyal to the whims of his superiors, or when he claims that “brevity is the soul of wit” before embarking on several lengthy, long-winded monologues. Ophelia claims to be pure, honest, and undesirous of Hamlet’s sexual or romantic attention—and yet their interactions seem to suggest that she and Hamlet have a long (and lurid) history, making her desperate attempts at purporting her purity all the more pathetic when seen through Hamlet’s eyes. Ultimately, Hamlet, who has been pretending to be mad for so long, drives himself to the edge of sanity, adopting a kind of nihilism when it comes to questions of life and death, morality, and reality itself. Gertrude, who pretends to be an innocent victim, becomes one when she unwittingly drinks poisoned wine intended for Hamlet. Polonius, who sacrificed his moral compass in service to a corrupt crown, is held up as a tragic loss for the court after his death, revered and mourned by the king. Ophelia, who denied her love for Hamlet in an attempt to appease her father, is buried as a virgin, in spite of the play’s suggestion that she was not pure when she died. All of these characters become the things they once merely pretended to be—and the line between appearance and reality grows blurrier and blurrier as the play progresses.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays, noted throughout history for its ambiguous moral center, deep existentialism, and deft exploration of appearance versus reality. As Shakespeare shows how fine the line between appearance and reality really is, he transforms the play into a cautionary tale about the dangers of adopting behaviors, traits, and ways of moving through the world that obscure or corrupt the truth of who one really is.
Appearance vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in Hamlet
O, villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in
reason, how infinite in faculties, 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?
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.
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…
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.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest… Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?