Summary: the Theme of Appearance in Hamlet Play

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In today’s society, appearance is everything. People are quick to make narrow-minded assumptions based on a person’s looks or status. The Roman Fabulist Phaedrus said, “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” This quote reflects the idea that appearances can often be deceiving and that first impressions are an inaccurate method of judging a person’s character. In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the prevailing theme of appearance vs. reality is recurrent throughout the play, and Shakespeare’s use of literary and plot devices highlights the idea that people who perceive others to be a certain way based on appearances alone are ignorant in the face of reality.To understand the theme it should be stated that, “appearance is commonly associated with the idea of reality, since one can not exist without the other.” (Ethan,2017).

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 Appearance, the public perception of someone, corresponds with reality because people tend to view what they see as reality, more often than not. This subjectivity comes from people looking at someone for what they are, but not who they are. Thus, appearance often overshadows reality and in Hamlet this is seen in King Claudius, who seems like this nice and caring person, but in reality he is an evil individual who murdered his own brother, his appearance is a front that hides his true self, and that is his reality.In the play, many of the characters hide behind a facade that conceals who they really are and their intentions. The play mainly revolves around Hamlet, who is the perfect example of someone appearing some type of way on the outside. In Act 1, after meeting the ghost of his father, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This decision of his blurs the line between appearance and reality, since over the course of the play it becomes less and less clear whether if he is still pretending to be mad or not.(Rockfeller,2019). Shakespeare depicts Hamlet this way in order to show how Hamlet’s appearance is impossible to interpret accurately, because his appearance ties so close to reality. As the play progresses all the characters are revealed for who they are, but it’s hard to tell if this revelation is true or not because, over the course of the play the line between appearance and reality continues to become blurier and blurier. This makes it hard for the audience to come up with a definitive answer on the character’s general identity.The theme of appearance vs. reality is also reflected in the literary device of a “play within a play”.  In Act 3, Scene 2 the characters are watching a play written by Hamlet. When the audience watches the characters of Hamlet watch a play, it can be inferred that the characters or even the audience could be upon a stage themselves. The literary device is also seen when, King Claudius’s lies and actions are given as a pretensense within Hamlet’s play.(3,2.1701-1707). 

Shakespeare’s use of this literary device also suggests that in some ways people are actors in their everyday life, even when they do not want to be.Shakespeare’s use of plot devices pushes the story forward, but also makes the idea of appearance vs. reality more important to the overall story. In Hamlet a plot device that is used to drive the play forward and is important to the idea of appearance and reality, is the introduction of the ghost. In reality it can be argued that ghosts are not real, but Shakespeare's use of the ghost serves a bigger purpose, since he uses it to spark the flames of vengeance in Hamlet and move the plot. An argument can also be made that the ghost’s appearance is in reality a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, and his madness is not an act.Shakespeare’s plays introduce a wide array of human experiences and personalities. However, Hamlet was one of the few plays that dwelled into the idea of ethical implications. The play gave audiences the opportunity to delve into the nature of appearance and how it related to reality. He presented life as if it were a theater and the characters in his plays were individuals who had their own personality despite being fictitious. The audience could relate to these characters and see how often appearances overshadow reality. Shakespeare’s Hamlet brings about a sentiment that states, life is illusionary; appearance and reality are closely intertwined. This basically means that, “there is a possibility of error about people and the world.”(Simon,2016). 

The theme of what is merely imagined and veridically perceived is reflected in Hamlet and is one of the main points Shakespeare tries to highlight.Shakespeare also proposed the question, what kind of truth can be told through theater, and what impact will it have on the audience? In Hamlet, Shakespeare shows how society blindly accepts appearance over reality. He expresses that people tend to only look at what’s in front of them and fail to see reality for what it is. He writes the characters of Hamlet to appear or look innocent on the outside, but in reality they are all irredeemable. Either blinded by revenge or just evil in nature, whatever the case may be it is clear that Shakespeare’s message was reflected successfully in Hamlet.The play also relates to today’s society. As one can easily tell the play is filled with lies, deceit, and deception. There is also a consistent contrast between what appears to be, and what is real. It basically serves as a warning to what lying and deception leads to and relates to today’s society due to the many detrimental relationships that already exist because people have either lied or fooled others. Typically the cause of many of these damaged relationships is the consistent lying to please another, rather than truthfulness. In Hamlet no character is outright truthful and this is what Shakespeare explicitly portrays in this play because it highlights the nature of humanity and society. People are just inclined to put on appearances because they want to be noticed or want to hide their true self. The desire to appear a certain way is common for everyone, Shakespeare just informs people to be cautious because only bad things result in mixing appearance with reality.Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most complex plays, highlighted by its deep exploration of appearance vs. reality.

 As Shakespeare shows the difference between appearance and reality he transforms the play into a cautionary tale that talks about the dangers of adopting certain behaviors or traits because it can corrupt or destroy the truth of who one really is. However, it is undeniable that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a masterpiece.



Works Cited

  1. Ethan. “Appearance vs. Reality.” Youth Voices, 26 Oct. 2017, 
  3. Phaedrus. “A Quote by Phaedrus.” Goodreads, Goodreads, 2009,
  5. Rockefeller, Lily. “Hamlet Themes and Literary Devices.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 27 Feb. 2019,
  7. William. “Hamlet.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Thomson Wadsworth, 2007, pp. 1656–1755. Simon, Ed. “What Was Shakespeare's Central Philosophy?” 
  8. Literary Hub, 25 Mar. 2019,, Gillian. “Hamlet: the Play within the Play.” The British Library, The British Library, 6 Nov. 2015,

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