The chasm between appearances and reality drives characters to become increasingly immoral and cruel as the conflict intensifies.
Hamlet is at the center of this madness. He is determined to find out the truth about Claudius, so he pretends to be mad in order to deceive those around him. He doesn't want to arouse suspicion that he is actually investigating his uncle's motives, so this appearance of madness gives everyone at Elsinore something else to focus on. As Hamlet's demeanor becomes increasingly erratic, he insults Ophelia to the point that she becomes suicidal. In a passionate scene where he accuses his mother of being involved in regicide, Hamlet becomes a murderer. When his former friends prove disloyal, Hamlet arranges for their executions. As the play progresses, Hamlet's feigned madness becomes increasingly real as his world spirals out of control.
The ghost of Hamlet's father is another portrayal of this theme. While he claims to be the former king, Hamlet isn't sure if the apparition speaks the truth. Thus, this vision which appears to be his father is a questionable reality for Hamlet. He wonders whether the ghost is Satan, determined to seal Hamlet's eternal doom. The ghost claims to be trapped between this world and the next, unable to move on until Hamlet fulfills his duties as the son of the murdered king. Once Hamlet comes to believe the words of the ghost, he slips into a world that is nearly singularly focused on murdering his uncle.
The appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern further the theme of appearance vs. reality. When they arrive, Hamlet begs them to be honest with him; he is certain that his old friends have arrived at this particular moment in order to serve as spies for King Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern avoid Hamlet's questions, making Hamlet increasingly certain of their disloyalty. They remain at the castle not as his friends but as traitors, and they eventually die because of their deception.
Ophelia faces the chaos that follows from Hamlet's feigned madness. She is certain that Hamlet's love was once real, yet she is forced to hear him insult her and insist that she never should have believed his "false" words. As Ophelia attempts to make sense out of Hamlet's "madness," she becomes increasingly mad herself, eventually drowning herself.
The ambiguity between appearances and reality generates conflict between numerous characters and exposes corruption that destroys nearly everyone.