In Shakespeares tragic play Hamlet, an overwhelming and prevalent theme is quite persistent throughout. Each character, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and Hamlet, is unique, but they all have one big thing in common. Each of these characters appears as one thing, with one outlook, and one standpoint. On the contrary, these characters are entirely different on the inside. This mask theme, or how the characters portray themselves as one person on the outside and one different on the inside, can be experienced in almost every single scene of the play. Claudius, the backstabbing, murdering king seems to be a caring, kind, and friendly man. But he is different on the inside. What the other characters in the play see is not what the readers see. In reality he is cold and self-absorbed, but what do we know? This could be a mask too. The two women in the play, Gertrude and Ophelia, both use a mask to cover what is obvious in their lives, a tangle of deception, masking it so that they may continue their life as if cruelty was not part of their existence. And finally, Hamlet hides behind his madness, whether it is real or not, he is an indecisive and spiteful man. The many masks in Shakespeares story are the whole basis of it, rather than just a theme.
As the characters of Hamlet try to hide their secret intentions, the mask theme develops. Of course, Claudius is one of the most obvious. He poisoned and killed his brother, the former king, so that he himself could become king. Now he is the King of Denmark and married to Queen Gertrude, who was his brothers wife. These awful and hideous crimes go unpunished simply because no one is aware that Claudius has done this. When he confronts people, he has to become a totally different person. He puts on a mask to hide who he really is. When doing this, he is no longer the cold and self-absorbed man that he really is, he transforms into a caring and kind man that does whatever he can to keep Gertrude by his side. And also so that he can keep Hamlet from trying to take the throne and destroy what Claudius has worked so hard to gain. Claudius wears his mask to this end. But is he really the mask or what he is inside? This question is called into play when he tries to seek redemption for his sins. The scene displays that his character might be a little nicer than most expected. Claudius goes back and forth with his guilt by asking himself, Where to serves mercy/ But to confront the visage of offense? / And in prayer but his twofold force, / to be forestalled are we come to fall, / or pardoned being down? And then he answers this question by saying, But, O, what form of prayer/ can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder? / That cannot be, since I am still possessed/ of those efforts for which I did the murder! / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. This is where Claudius unites with the understanding that even when he pretends he is repenting, his true self cant give up the fact that he is truly not sorry for what he did. Claudius has now separated the mask from himself, and finds that the mask is fake. Therefore, he is the cold monster many see him as. However, not every character is confused about their nature.
The female roles of this play are confused in a different way. Both Gertrude and Ophelia create masks to escape the harsh realities of their life. Ophelias mask is the most fragile because Hamlets almost never-ending cruelty towards her drives her insane in the end. She creates a defense at first, trying to shield herself from his cruelty. However, it fails. For a while, Ophelia believes that Hamlet truly loves her, and that he would not intentionally harm her this way. But soon enough, through his actions and words, such as killing her father, breaks the mask that was protecting her. Once the truth and reality got to her, she shatters under the pressure and kills herself. Gertrude, the other, older woman in the play, has a very peculiar mask. She wont let herself see or believe what Hamlet proves to her, the truth about Claudius. That he has murdered her husband, and his brother, for the kingdom. Also, shes convinced that Hamlet has gone mad, and therefore what he says has little effect on her. Even when she is dying she does not realize how Claudius betrayed everyone. Her mask puts her into her own world, and as long as she lives unaffected, she will remain happy, and nothing will ruin her happiness.
The most complicated and perhaps the best example of a mask is Hamlet himself. There is a very fine line between Hamlets mask and his reality; it is difficult to understand if it is real or not. His mask would appear to be his madness, and he acts the part well, because even if the madness is reality, it is a mask nonetheless. He uses this mask to hide his real plans and his real self. However, he hurts everyone around him in his delusions. The madness is a mask of his real self, which is cruel, undecided and suspicious. He only cares for those who are very close to him, or who have wronged him. Hamlet also kills innocent bystanders such as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius, without thinking of the consequences. Hamlet encounters Laertes after murdering Polonius, Laertes father. Laertes, obviously not too happy with Hamlet for killing his father, attacks Hamlet. Hamlet truly cannot understand why Laertes is so angry with him. Hamlet later blames Polonius death on his madness when he says to Horatio, If Hamlet from himself be taken away,/ And when hes not himself does wrong Laertes,/ Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it./ Who does it then? His madness. By differentiating between his mask, his madness, and himself displays that he cares little about the damage he causes. If his mask is his madness, it proves that he doesnt really love Ophelia. He shows no respect for her, and after she commits suicide, Hamlet goes to her gave, and from his true self he says, I loved Ophelia, Forty thousand brothers/ could not with their quantity of love/ Make up my sum. But if Hamlet really loved Ophelia so much, then he wouldnt have been so rude to her. He treated her terribly. His madness was, in fact, just a very thin mask to cover his bitterness towards Ophelia, and women in general. He treated his mother badly by threatening and making her submit to his will. Hamlets madness, in the end, was a simple cover to hide his true feelings and actions.
Every character in Hamlet has a mask in some way or another. Whether it be hiding a murder, protecting one from another, creating their own world, or simply hiding their true self, no one character in this play is left simply as they are. Each of these masks exist to provide the characters inner selves with protection and to attain something they desire. From Claudius trying to convince others of his kindness, while he is a murderer inside, to the women dreaming of living in a perfect world, and to Hamlet with his madness covering up his indecisiveness and spite. In Shakespeares play Hamlet, the theme of masks is developed early on, and continues to spiral out as the story climaxes. At one time, all characters encounter false appearances. And so, this masking theme controls all of the characters actions.