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Hamlet: Appearance vs. Reality

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Nicole McGuiggan

on 1 May 2014

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Transcript of Hamlet: Appearance vs. Reality

Act 1, Scene 3
Act 1, Scene 2
Act 3, Scene 3
Act 2, Scene 2
Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hamlet: Appearance vs. Reality
Context: Act 2, Scene 2 in conversation with Resoncrantz and Guildenstern about their coming to Denmark.
HAMLET
Denmark's a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ
Then is the world one.
HAMLET
A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.
ROSENCRANTZ
We think not so, my lord.
HAMLET
Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ
Why then, your ambition makes it one; 'tis too
narrow for your mind.
HAMLET
O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.


page 81
Generally, in this passage we can also see that Hamlet is very pessimistic about the world and that he is falling farther and farther into depression, however, he is still able to have a fast paced, quick "back and forth" conversation with his friends.
Hamlet is essentially saying that we have the power decide what reality we live in. The world and everything in it can be good/evil based on our own perceptions. This means that nothing is purely right or wrong - no absolute truth or reality exists. This not only develops this theme of appearance vs reality and moral relativism but also offers us insight into Hamlet's character development. Generally honor is thought to be absolute and we assumed that Hamlet believed in the absolute truth to kill Claudius for his father's honor. The ideas discussed above really contradict this idea and combined with the fact that hamlet has not attempted to kill his Uncle yet shows a hesitation to kill.
Context: Act 1, scene 3 Polonius is giving Laertes, his son advice upon his move to France.
Another aspect to consider is that this advice seems very genuine, trusting and fatherly as he set off his son to a foreign country, however, we later find out that Polonius will have somebody spy on his son to make sure he does not dishonor the family - this not only emphasizes the importance of appearance, however superficial, to Polonius but also shows a complete contradiction to his advice given here.
Essentially what Polonius is saying throughout this passage is for Laertes to appear "normal" and do what is expected. Stressing the importance of appearing good rather than truly being good.

This idea of appearing good while not having a responsibility to actually be good corresponds with Machiavellianism view that morality is not as important.

QUEEN GERTRUDE
If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
HAMLET
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.
KING CLAUDIUS
'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; 'tis unmanly grief;

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Hamlet is quite distraught after the death of his father, however, Queen Gertrude is wondering why he looks so unhappy and why is it so "hung up" on this death when dying is so common. Hamlet takes the word "seems" that his mother uses and argues that seems is not the right word - he isnt acting this way to seem sad. Hamlet is just sad - that is the reality of the situation.

Claudius later describes grief as an appropriate feeling that one must show after the death of a family member as a sort of "duty" however if this grief "perseveres" - in other words if it is true grief - it is unmanly. Claudius is separating appearance from reality. In the case of Hamlet, where they coincide and he does not only appear sad but is truly sad, it is thought to be a weakness. Claudius is saying that grief should be an inauthentic feeling and a "show" that we put on because it is the emotion people expect and want to see.
HAMLET
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
No!
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
Exit

KING CLAUDIUS
[Rising] My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
In this passage we see how making decisions solely off of appearance may lead to a complete downfall of a character. We cannot fully trust our visual senses to give us a sense of reality.

Hamlet is about to kill Claudius, however, he sees Claudius praying in the church. He believes that Claudius will not go to hell if he kills him while he is praying and so he decides to carry out the murder at a later time. Claudius then admits his heart is not in the apology - he will never go to heaven.
The use of dramatic irony is very important because the audience is aware of the "reality" of the situation and are angered at Hamlet's reluctance to kill Claudius. After this, due to a series of triggered events (murder of Polonius - death of Ophelia - fight with Laertes) we see the complete downfall and death of Hamlet. In hindsight, all of this could have been avoided if Hamlet would have killed Claudius at this point in time.

While the passage emphasizes the fact that we are not always able to rely on what we see to know what is truly going on,however, it then begs the question.. of what can we rely on? Unlike several previous passages where the audience is trying to figure out what is true and what is not, in this passage we are aware of the reality, however, we are unsure how Hamlet
could
see the truth and ultimately save his life.
Act 3, Scene 4
Act 2, Scene 2

GHOST
Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet.
HAMLET
How is it with you, lady?
QUEEN GERTRUDE
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?
HAMLET
On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.
QUEEN GERTRUDE
To whom do you speak this?
HAMLET
Do you see nothing there?
QUEEN GERTRUDE
Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.
HAMLET
Nor did you nothing hear?
QUEEN GERTRUDE
No, nothing but ourselves.
HAMLET
Why, look you there! look, how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look, where he goes, even now, out at the portal!
Exit Ghost

Motif - prostitution.
Prostitution in the time of Shakespeare and even today is essentially "fake love." Prostitutes make love for ulterior reasons and "sell out." The comparison of not only to characters but also other things such as fortune to prostitution represents this theme of appearance and reality - appearing good/appearing "in love" when in reality it is not pure.
Is reality based solely on perception? In this passage Hamlet argues that we have the power to decide what reality we live in based on our thoughts and sense of the world
Generally, this passage reinforces our idea of "uncertain" environment and chaotic environment - what is true and who is telling the truth?
In this passage, the reader begins to question whether the appearance of the ghost correlates with the reality of its presence.

There are essentially two main questions:
Is the ghost really there?
Why can't Gertrude see the ghost?

One reading is that Gertrude is unable to see the ghost because she has already gotten over the King's death whereas Hamlet has not. Another reading is that the ghost is no longer there but simply in Hamlet's mind. Either way, the two characters of Gertrude and Hamlet are unable to share in the same reality which causes confusion. Hamlet is shocked that Gertrude cannot hear or see the King and perhaps angered that she cannot share in the appearance of the ghost.

Is reality defined by numbers? In the first appearance of the ghost in Act 1, the guards share the news to the others and to Hamlet in order to ensure that the ghost is truly there. Does the Queen's inability to see the King detract from it's being a reality?
Act 4, Scene 2

LAERTES
Alas, then, she is drown'd?
QUEEN GERTRUDE
Drown'd, drown'd.
LAERTES
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord:
I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze,
But that this folly douts it.
Exit

KING CLAUDIUS
Let's follow, Gertrude:
How much I had to do to calm his rage!
Now fear I this will give it start again;
Therefore let's follow.
Exeunt
In this passage, Shakespeare describes how one may separate appearance and reality intentionally in order to maintain one's honor or live up to gender/social expectations.
Polonius has just lost his father and upon hearing the news of his sister's death he is overcome with grief and yet he does not let himself cry. He must not let his appearance show the reality of the situation for fear of being seen as "unmanly" or "dishonorable."

This situation is very similar to the conversation in Act 1 where Claudius tells Hamlet he must act sad for his fathers death as this is respectful but not truly be sad for that is "unmanly grief"

While throughout the novel we have been exposed to this idea of intentionally separating appearance and reality (Hamlet says he will "appear" crazy) we see that this never turns out well. The disconnection between appearance and reality especially when characters inner thoughts and feelings are involved only leads to confusion as the characters attempt to grasp onto what the others are thinking as well as the audience tries to grasp the reality of the situation.

While Laertes forbids his tears, Claudius is worried about Laertes becoming enraged again and threatening the king . The king is truly only concerned with ensuring his safety and the safety of his power rather than the death of Ophelia and its impact of´on Laertes
.
In this passage, Shakespeare describes how one may separate appearance and reality intentionally in order to maintain one's honor or live up to social expectations while Hamlet argues against this idea describing reality as absolute and his appearance is simply a reflection of reality.
In this passage, it is argued that appearance is more important than the reality because appearance is based off of perception and appearance has the ability to "cover" reality to the point where it is irrelevant
KING CLAUDIUS
Part them; they are incensed.
HAMLET
Nay, come, again.

QUEEN GERTRUDE falls

OSRIC
Look to the queen there, ho!
HORATIO
They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?
OSRIC
How is't, Laertes?
LAERTES
Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric;
I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.
HAMLET
How does the queen?
KING CLAUDIUS
She swounds to see them bleed.
QUEEN GERTRUDE
No, no, the drink, the drink,--O my dear Hamlet,--
The drink, the drink! I am poison'd.
Dies

Act 5, Scene 2

Motif: Traps is a motif throughout the play which represent one's ability to hide or cover something and trick/manipulate another.
In this passage, Laertes is caught in his own trap;
"woodcock to mine own spring" - he set this trap for hamlet (dishonorable) and in the end it was the cause of his death as well.
Traps are based on the manipulation of one's perception of appearance to the point where they are unaware and naive of the reality.
The fight between Laertes and Hamlet is supposed to be entertainment and in fun spirit. As soon as the fighting comes from "true motives" they are instructed to stop by Claudius who states "part them, they are incensed"
Act 5, Scene 1

Death is the only true and absolute reality.
Act 2, Scene 2 (soliloquy)

page 87
As Polonius uses reason to try to understand Hamlet's "madness" Hamlet mocks Polonius
Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger" which may be read as a prostitute's pimp
This takes place right after it is agreed that they will send Ophelia out to see how hamlet reacts. In other words, the are manipulating appearance and using lies and deception.
Hamlet believes that our reason is not enough to declare something a reality we must have external proof.
How do we know something is true?
Is there an absolute reality and how can you prove this?

Hamlet begins to question the ghost in Act 2, Scene 2 and declares that he needs external proof that Claudius has killed his father. He decides that he will put on a play and look for a reaction from Claudius.

Hamlet decides to not rely solely on reason (even though due to dramatic irony - we know he should!) but to trap Claudius and with this proof decide to kill or not to kill him.

This question of proving a reality exists, and even questioning if only one reality exists is brought up throughout the play. At this moment, we see Hamlet with a lack of moral clarity
Note: Trap Motif (explained later)
Note: Prostitute Motif
HAMLET
Well, God-a-mercy.
LORD POLONIUS
Do you know me, my lord?
HAMLET
Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.
LORD POLONIUS
Not I, my lord.
HAMLET
Then I would you were so honest a man.
LORD POLONIUS
Honest, my lord!
HAMLET
Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.
LORD POLONIUS
That's very true, my lord.
HAMLET
For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a
god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?
LORD POLONIUS
I have, my lord.
HAMLET
Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.
Friend, look to 't.
LORD POLONIUS
[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my
daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this. I'll speak to him again.
What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET
Words, words, words.
LORD POLONIUS
What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET
Between who?
LORD POLONIUS
I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
Upon discussion with the gravediggers, Hamlet argues that death transforms even the greatest kings into "trivial" objects. There is no way to escape death and while life is full of deception and lies and falsehoods, death is so natural and inevitable that everybody decays down to a worthless skull - there is no alternate reality or even appearance of reality.

HORATIO
What's that, my lord?
HAMLET
Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'
the earth?
HORATIO
E'en so.
HAMLET
And smelt so? pah!
Puts down the skull

HORATIO
E'en so, my lord.
HAMLET
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO
'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET
No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
But soft! but soft! aside: here comes the king.
This takes place right before the funeral of Ophelia. Horatio and Hamlet are discussing with the gravediggers and Hamlet finds a skull which belonged to someone he knew.
HAMLET
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Throughout the play, it is clouded with deceit and inconsistencies between appearance and reality, in this passage, Hamlet describes the rarity of an honest man - one who consistently matches appearance to reality.
Once again, this brings up the idea of separating appearance and reality for a social expectation. While it is socially acceptable to fight for "fun" this same action is deemed unacceptable when the motives "change" even though Laertes was planning the death of Hamlet all along
Social expectations encourage the separation of appearance and reality to the point that when they coincide it is a problem.
How do we know something is true?
Full transcript