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Appearances Vs Reality in Atonement and Hamlet

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Appearances can be deceiving with the masks people put up shielding their true nature, cloaking the intentions of the devil behind the mask of an angel.

Such is the case with Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, a psychological fiction depicting the consequences of not being able to notice false personas. McEwan shows the concept of deceptive appearances through the life of the protagonist, Briony, as she pleads for atonement from the sin of the false accusation of her family friend – Robbie Turner – for the rape of Lola Quincey; when in reality the actual rapist is the millionaire chocolatier, Paul Marshall, a man masking his crimes behind a veil of kindness and friendliness towards others.

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Similarly, we see this effect of appearance vs reality in Hamlet, a play written by William Shakespeare. When the protagonist, Hamlet, discovers his uncle Claudius has killed his father and married his mother, Gertrude, to become king, he questions the reality displayed before him. Claudius, like Paul, attempts to create a false persona to evade punishment for his crime. In both texts the perceived appearances of the main antagonists do not represent the reality of their crime, which allows the authors to render more effective and unsuspecting antagonists; through individual deception in actions committed and societal deception regarding social class.

Both Atonement and Hamlet use contradictory actions from their main antagonists which are deceptive to their true intentions, allowing for them to be unsuspecting villains for the crimes they commit.

In atonement, Paul Marshall displays a caring and responsible appearance towards others, while in reality, he is the rapist of Lola Quincey; contradicting the appearance he has given. During the family dinner, Lola is found to have been injured and the Quincey twins have run away; at this time of distress, Paul displays a caring yet authoritative tone towards others when addressing these problems, giving the appearance of a savior. For example, when the injuries on Lola are found he speaks to Lola saying “‘There’s no shame in making a fuss, you know. You’re awfully brave, but you have taken a bad knock”(McEwan p.142) McEwan uses diction in words such as “awfully brave” to highlight Paul’s care towards Lola and then again when the Quincey twins disappear saying “It’s going to be alright. We’ll make up some search parties and find them in no time”(McEwan p.143). Once again, there is an evident use of diction in consoling phrases such as “It’s going to be alright” and “find them in no time” utilized by Paul to de-escalate the situation at hand, creating an authoritative and caring persona towards the people around him. The effect of this perceived appearance is highlighted as Paul is free from any scrutiny and accusation when being questioned on the rape, allowing him to evade punishment for his crime.

Similarly, in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” the use of a false persona is used by the main antagonist to disguise their true intentions, but in this case as the role of a father figure. A caring and authoritative persona are seen by King Claudius towards Hamlet, portraying himself as a father figure to hide the reality of his crimes. When Hamlet is feeling distressed over his father’s death, King Claudius establishes himself as a father figure towards Hamlet, with fatherly and caring condolences such as “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father.” (Act 1 Scene 2) than creating an authoritative tone saying “In filial obligation for some term To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere obstinate condolement is a course Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.” (Act 1 Scene 2) This stark contrast in compliments and advice King Claudius gives not only helps persuade Hamlet to move on from his father’s death, Claudius’s crime, but resembles a father figure persona which aids in the appearance he has given not only to Hamlet but to all those around him; that Claudius sympathizes with Hamlet and truly feels remorse of King Hamlet’s death.

This appearance allows for Claudius’s false story of a serpent killing the King to be believable shown by the lack of discussion over King’s death, with the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude happening less than two months after his death.

Through these actions, each antagonist can display a caring and authoritative appearance to those around them, deceptive of their true intentions – their reality.

Appearances of the main antagonists aren’t only manipulated by themselves, but also by those around them due to societal deception; through class stereotypes, the main antagonists are seen in a better light due to their high social class.

McEwan illustrates how stereotypes regarding social class alter character’s perceptions of one another, in this case, the main antagonist Paul Marshall. During the time period Atonement takes place, 1935 London England, social standing is seen as a strong indicator of manners and dignity, with people of higher social standing being seen as better than those under. Paul Marshall is first introduced as a chocolate millionaire and an individual of high class.

We see clear class stereotypes in the dinner scene where Paul rudely attempts to create a separate conversation with Robbie, a working-class man, to which Robbie remarks “It was inappropriate, at the beginning of the meal, for Marshall to turn away from his hostess and begin a private conversation” (McEwan p.127). Robbie then presents the general topic to open up the conversation to the others at the dinner table, showing his manners and class. However, when Emily is reminiscing on the dinner she remarks how Robbie “ had been some maniac and glazed in his look” (McEwan p.151) while for Paul she says “how artfully Mr. Marshall had put everyone at ease” (McEwan p.152). McEwan’s use of juxtaposition in this case between the contrast in ridicule and compliments illustrates the warped sense of perception from Emily, as she sees Paul, a man with little manners compared to Robbie, as better due to the difference in the social hierarchy. This concept of class stereotypes is further solidified by McEwan when Robbie, a close family friend of the Tallies, is accused as a rapist and is believed by the majority of the family. Furthermore, Paul isn’t even considered as a potential culprit and another character of a lower class is suspected, Danny Hardman, by Robbie and Cecilia after they reunite; even as Danny has a reliable alibi to where he was when the rape occurred.

This shows how class stereotypes are held through characters of all classes in the book and that through these stereotypes, Paul’s appearance is contorted allowing him to be unsuspecting of his crime; creating an effective villain.

Shakespeare utilizes a similar technique in Hamlet where Claudius is in one of the highest positions of respect authority; the king. During the Elizabethan era, the time in which Hamlet took place, there is a social hierarchy resembling that of modern time known as the great chain of being. In this chain of being god is placed at the top going down from angels and so forth to the king; to which the rest of humanity is beneath. This chain of being was supposedly used in Elizabethan Europe to keep the peace, and for someone to defy the king was seen as someone defying god; a grave sin. This mindset elevates King Claudius’s appearance as he is seen above everyone else, capable of no wrong, especially the murder of the previous King – his brother. The effect of this high-status position is seen where Hamlet’s childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, betray Hamlet by working with Claudius, as

Hamlet says “Besides, to be demanded of a sponge! … Ay, sir, that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities.” (Act 4 Scene 2). This use of metaphor where Hamlet refers to his friends as “sponges” shows the effect the high status of King has on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as they are willing to believe Claudius instead of their friend, even attempt to kill Hamlet as we see further on in the play. This title of “King” and societal serotypes attributed with this title allow Claudius to become an effective antagonist as his appearance masks his true intentions. So, through societal deception, both antagonists are seen with better appearances due to their high social class allowing for the creation of appearances that contradict their true crimes.

The important connection between the two texts is that each false appearance is made by the antagonist during times of distress.

In atonement, Marshall’s false persona is first seen when Lola’s injuries have been found and the twins have a runoff. At this time, while many would be panicking, Paul displays his false appearance elevating the impact this persona has on other characters; showing the large role emotions have on our perspective of others and their appearances.

Similarly, we can see the effect emotions have on the perspectives of others, during times of distress within Hamlet. When Hamlet learns of his father’s death, instead of feeling panicked, he feels frustration for he cannot bring his father back. This is detrimental to the false appearance given by Claudius as we see the resentment held In Hamlet during his first soliloquy, ultimately leading to Hamlet seeing through Claudius’ false appearance; showing the importance this time of distress has on Claudius’ appearance.

Although both antagonists attempt to create their false appearances during times of distress, its effect heavily depends on the emotions of those around them.

To conclude, both McEwan and Shakespeare in their literary works, Atonement, and Hamlet respectively, utilize false appearances to aid in the creation of unsuspecting and effective antagonists by masking the reality of their crimes. This effect is attained through the use of deceptive actions from the main antagonists, Paul Marshall and King Claudius, and societal deceptions held in other characters regarding social class, due to unconscious societal bias.

These false appearances add depth to each story as the theme of perspective is prevalently used and characters attempt to understand the reality of others’ actions and intentions; these appearances acting as a roadblock.  

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