False appearances

Seeming versus reality

In Act V scene i Hamlet observes that even the thickest make-up put on to disguise ageing cannot prevent death —

‘Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.'

Make-up and painting (see Imagery and symbolism: Painting) are part of a strong theme of false appearances: very little is as it seems at the court of Denmark.

  • We are made aware of this very early on, in Act I scene i, when Horatio questions whether the guards have really seen what they think they have, or whether it is their ‘fantasy'
  • The question ‘What can we really see?' is raised from the opening line — ‘Who's there?' — which indicates that the action of the play starts in darkness and that Barnardo cannot see the person whose movement he hears
  • Hamlet's comment to his mother in Act I scene ii stresses his sense that he is surrounded by pretence:
    ‘Seems, madam! Nay, it is. I know not seems.'
  • Hamlet's own behaviour is deemed to be pretence by both Laertes and Polonius as they warn Ophelia (Act I scene iii) not to take Hamlet's ‘tenders for true pay'
  • Hamlet has to urge Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to ‘deal justly with me' in Act II scene ii
  • By Act III scene iii he tells them bitterly that to play on a recorder is ‘as easy as lying'
  • Claudius, as Hamlet suspects from the start, can ‘smile and smile and be a villain.'
  • Even Polonius, devious though he can be, is aware of his own hypocrisy in giving Ophelia a prayer-book as an excuse for walking alone ‘in the lobby':
‘We are oft to blame in this …
… that with devotion's visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
the devil himself.'


The most obvious and most significant evidence of the theme of false appearances is tied in with the theme of acting. The word is used with two distinct but interwoven meanings throughout Hamlet:

  • It is associated with men of action, such as Fortinbras and Laertes who do what Hamlet swore to do in Act I scene v — ‘sweep to (their) revenge.'
  • It also has the meaning ‘to pretend', ‘to take on a role', ‘to play-act'.

Claudius ‘acts' in the sense of pretending throughout, though when we first see him we are led to infer that he is a man of action, sending ambassadors to deal swiftly with a threatening situation.

The players

The arrival of the actors, or players, in the central section of the play, allows Shakespeare to draw this theme even more strongly to our attention:

  • The speech about Hecuba given by the First Player in Act II scene ii stresses the grief felt by a faithful queen for her husband, and reinforces Hamlet's view that Gertrude's behaviour shows her ‘frailty' and falseness
  • The play ‘The Mousetrap' underlines this even more strongly, as Shakespeare uses a play-within-a-play to expose the pretence and guilt of Claudius.

The fact that Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright (see Author section: 1592 – 1611: Life in London) gives an added significance to the words he gives Hamlet to speak to the Players in Act III scene ii. Acting, he says, is pretence, but paradoxically its purpose is to expose pretence:

‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action … For anything … overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, [show] scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.'


The misuse of words is of course closely associated with the idea of false appearances:

  • Hamlet directly accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of lying to him (Act III scene iii)
  • Claudius lies from his very first words in the play.

More on Claudius' language: It is noticeable how Shakespeare gives Claudius very smooth and carefully constructed blank verse lines in which to give his court — and the audience, who know no better at this stage — the impression that he is an honest and capable statesman (See Shakespeare's Language: Variations from the norm)

  • Ophelia lies to Hamlet when he asks her (Act III scene i) ‘Where's your father?'
  • Laertes lies to Hamlet when Hamlet apologises in Act V scene ii: Laertes' reply
    ‘I do receive your offered love like love, /And will not wrong it'
    is the grossest dishonesty from a man who holds a poisoned rapier
  • Laertes has himself been lied to by Claudius, who conceals his own guilt but tells Laertes:
‘You have heard, and with a knowing ear,
That he which hath your noble father slain Pursued my life.'


Associated with the idea of lying is the recurrent suggestion of rumour and calumny (maliciously false statements):

  • Throughout the play we are given images of words as poison — beginning with the suggestion that, because of Claudius's lies about the cause of his brother's death
    ‘the whole ear of Denmark / Is by a forged process … ./ Rankly abused.'
  • Polonius urges Reynaldo (Act II scene i) to tell lies about Laertes in order to elicit the response he wants:
    ‘Put on him / What forgeries you please.'
  • Rumour in Denmark is worrying Claudius when Laertes returns from France — the people have become
    ‘thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers.'
  • Laertes himself does not lack
    ‘buzzers to infect his ear / With pestilent speeches of his father's death.'
  • Not even the innocent can escape the poisonous effect of false words, as Hamlet tells Ophelia in Act III scene I:
    ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.'
  • Before he dies, Hamlet ensures that his ‘wounded name' will be restored; Horatio will live to ‘truly deliver' Hamlet's story to the world.

It is appropriate that, escaping in death from such a climate of verbal deception as has pervaded Elsinore, Hamlet's last words are: ‘The rest is silence.'


The idea of spying is closely associated with ideas of false appearances and images of traps. (See Imagery and symbolism: Traps). There are many occasions during the play where one character is spied on by another (or others):

  • Scarcely has his son arrived in Paris before Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on him, and advises him to use devious means to get at the truth:
    ‘Before you visit him … make enquire/ Of his behaviour … By indirections find directions out.'
  • Claudius and Gertrude send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what really troubles Hamlet — a matter of particular concern to the guilty Claudius:
‘Gather /So much as from occasion you may glean,/ Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him.'
  • Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop on Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia
  • Polonius, with Claudius's consent, hides in Gertrude's chamber to overhear her conversation with her son.

There is a climate of deceit and betrayal throughout the Danish court.

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