Make-up immoral

There is a strong theme of ‘false appearances' in the play (see Themes and significant ideas: False Elizabeth Iappearances.) At various times during Hamlet Shakespeare reinforces this idea by using the image of make-up — ‘painting', or face-painting. Although we know that make-up was commonly used in the sixteenth century — famously by Queen Elizabeth the First whose use of make-up containing white lead ruined her skin — Shakespeare frequently links it to sexual looseness, and hence moral corruption.


The court of Hamlet is full of deception, stemming particularly from the secret murder of Old Hamlet:

  • In Act III scene i Claudius himself compares his hypocrisy, in pretending to be a virtuous monarch, with make-up used by a prostitute:
‘The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.'
  • In the same scene Hamlet attacks women for the use of make-up, which seems to symbolise for him their deceptive natures:
‘I have heard of your paintings too … God has given you one
face, and you make yourselves another.'
  • In Act V scene i Hamlet scathingly remarks that make-up cannot overcome mortality:
‘Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint
an inch thick, to this favour she must come.'

The stark truth of death will do away with all disguises.

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