How does the theme of "Appearance vs. Reality" apply to Hamlet?

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The ideas of appearance and reality are explored in Hamlet by revealing the ways in which falsehoods cause characters to become increasingly immoral and cruel.

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It is really important to revisit this common theme here. Hamlet, himself, illustrates this theme when he says, "As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on." In other words, Hamlet is going to pretend to act crazy for the rest of the play. How does he plan to do this? Sometimes, says Hamlet, it will be through his appearance through "arms encumb'red thus, or this headshake." Sometimes, says Hamlet, it will be because he speaks irrationally "by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase." Now, how is this appearance vs. reality? Well, according to Hamlet, he will "appear" crazy, but he will be sane in "reality." That is one way to look at it. However, there is another interpretation that should be considered. Does Hamlet simply appear crazy, or might he actually be crazy? Does the plan to act crazy actually lead to real mental illness? Is it possible that Hamlet never becomes crazy and always remains sane?

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How are the ideas of appearance and reality explored in Hamlet?

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.

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In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, what is Shakespeare saying about the theme appearance vs. reality?

Shakespeare's Hamlet takes a serious look at the theme of "appearance vs reality." This theme is a common occurrence in life; in this story, Shakespeare demonstrates his belief that such behavior can have deadly results.

"Appearance vs reality" is seen when the King and Gertrude encourage Hamlet to pull himself together regarding Old Hamlet's death. Gertrude asks why his mourning seems to be so difficult. He responds that it is not something that "seems:" what she sees is real, not just for show. Hamlet defies the idea that his actions are anything but as they appear.


...Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,

Passing through nature to eternity.


Ay, madam, it is common.


If it be,

Why seems it so particular with thee?


Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'

'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play:

But I have that within which passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.76-89)

Another example is when the Ghost appears to Hamlet: it could be his father's spirit or it could be a dark spirit bent upon destroying Hamlet's soul. To kill a king, which is what the Ghost asks of him, is a sin against God; the Elizabethans believed that monarchs were chosen by God. If Hamlet does not have just cause in killing Claudius, he will be committing a mortal sin. He needs proof that the spirit is "honest."

Once Hamlet gets these details from the Ghost, he tries to collect proof that Claudius did kill Old Hamlet. Hamlet decides that he will pretend to be insane when it suits his purpose. In Act One, scene five, Hamlet states that he will present an "antic disposition," and that seeing such, Horatio must not act as if this craziness is anything but real.


But come—
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,

How strange or odd some'er I bear myself—

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on— (189-192)

We see this theme again when Ophelia speaks to Hamlet while being spied on by the King and/or Polonius. The men are trying to ascertain the cause of Hamlet's mental collapse. Hamlet is aware that things are not as they appear—that Ophelia is collecting information for the others. (He blames her for this, but what choice does she have?)

Later, Claudius tries to make it appear that he cares for Hamlet as a son. However, it is a lie. After the "play-within-a-play," Hamlet has shown how dangerous he can be. The King tries to have him executed in England. Claudius lets Laertes believe that Hamlet is responsible for all of Laertes' heartache so he will kill Hamlet; the King says he cannot do so because Hamlet is loved by the people, and Gertrude dotes upon her son. Claudius says he is a friend of Polonius and Laertes, but this is also a lie. Later, Claudius acts like he loves Gertrude, but lets her drink the poison intended for Hamlet.

The false "fronts" the characters adopt lead to the death of all of the major characters. Ophelia is the only death that is not based on taking part in palace intrigue: murder, incest, and subterfuge. (She is an innocent.) The false appearances lead to the doom of the royal family and its household.

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How might the characters and events in William Shakespeare's Hamlet be examined in terms of the theme of appearance and reality?

The theme of appearance vs. reality is a major motif of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and affects a number of the work’s characters and events, including the following:

  • The Ghost.  Is the ghost a trustworthy spirit, or is it a devil in disguise? This, for Hamlet, is a crucial question. Others in the play, however, are also puzzled by the ghost, including the wise Horatio. Thus Horatio, referring to the ghost, mentions

. . . Our last king, 
Whose image even but now appear'd to us . . . .

Is the ghost really the spirit of Old Hamlet, or is the ghost merely a deceptive “image” of Old Hamlet? This is a question that proves as troubling to us as it does to Hamlet.

  • Claudius. Is Claudius a good king, as he pretends to be, or is he the murderer of Hamlet’s father, as the ghost claims?  Hamlet spends a good deal of time and effort trying to determine an accurate answer to this question.
  • Hamlet. Is Hamlet a sane man involved in a sincere search for the truth, or is he an increasingly insane person who has become unhinged by the appearance of the ghost?
  • Ophelia. Is Ophelia truly in love with Hamlet, or is she, as Hamlet suspects, merely being used as a tool by her father and the king to gain information from Hamlet?
  • Polonius. Is Polonius a wise, well-intentioned old man, or is he a mere fool, as Hamlet seems to think?
  • Gertrude. Is Gertrude a good and worthy mother, or is she, as Hamlet suspects, a woman driven by unsavory sexual impulses?
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Are these two men true friends of Hamlet who are genuinely concerned about his welfare, or are they, as Hamlet suspects, mere tools of Claudius?

These are just a few of the many questions about appearance vs. reality raised by Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet is notoriously one of the most perplexing pieces of literature ever written, and its frequent tendency to raise issues about appearance vs. reality is just one of many reasons that this is true.

[For more on this issue, see the three links below.]

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