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Denmark: The Land of Make-Believe

In William Shakespeare?s, Hamlet, there exists a predominant motif of pretense. Throughout the play, the characters feign emotions in order to achieve their own purposes. Various characters use pretense to hide their true thoughts from each other and to cover up for what evil deeds they have down.

In Act I, Claudius, Hamlet and Polonius demonstrate their pretentiousness. Claudius claims to mourn for his ?dear brother?s death? (I, ii, 1) when actually, he was the murderer. Claudius must portray a convincing semblance of deep mourning, appropriate to a brother?s untimely demise. In this same scene, Gertrude questions the authenticity of Hamlet?s grief, believing it too vocal to be real emotion. Hamlet responds that it is not only his ?customary suits of solemn black? (I, ii, 78) that denote his sorrow, but also the deep emotion behind his wearing them. Hamlet goes on to confess that the mourning rites are ?actions that a man might play? (I, ii, 84), bringing to mind Claudius? pretentious lamentation. In his first soliloquy at the end of Scene ii, Hamlet scorns Gertrude?s false and short mourning for [King] Hamlet. In Scene iii Polonius makes his pretense apparent when he acts concerned for Laertes? and Ophelia?s honor. All that truly concerns him is how their wrongdoing might tarnish his good name. Hamlet perfectly verbalizes the motif of pretense when he realizes ?that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.? (I, v, 108) Claudius? ability to trick his way into the throne by simply pretending to have loved his brother amazes Hamlet.

Pretense is very apparent in Act II, wherein Polonius and Hamlet each further demonstrate their tendency toward affectation. In his quest to maintain his name unblemished, Polonius enlists Reynaldo?s help in watching over Laertes claiming it is to protect Laertes? honor. Polonius encourages Reynaldo to put forth ?what forgeries he please[s]? (II, i, 20) about Laertes, so as to ferret out the truth. In this scene, Ophelia reveals that Hamlet is ?mad? with love for her, showing that Hamlet?s pretended insanity is convincing. Polonius tells the King and Queen that the ?very cause of Hamlet?s lunacy? (II, ii, 49) is his unrequited love for Ophelia. In his conversation with Polonius, Hamlet emits an aura of disarray and impending lunacy which confirm Polonius? suspicion that Hamlet is loosing his mind. At the end of Act II, Hamlet has thought of a way of destroying Claudius? cover of pretense and revealing his guilt through the play-within-the-play.

In Act III, Hamlet and Claudius are the only ones suspicious of each other?s pretense while all of the other characters are convinced of Hamlet?s madness and Claudius? innocence. Rosencratz and Guildenstern report to the King and Queen that Hamlet, ?with a crafty madness keeps aloof? (III, i, 8), illustrating once again how well Hamlet?s deception is working. In this scene, Ophelia acts pretentiously, in that she appears to be idly pacing and reading when she really hopes that Hamlet will talk to her for the benefit of the King and Polonius behind the arras. In their conversation, Hamlet claims that he ?loved [Ophelia] not? (III, i, 119), a statement he later recants on when she is dead. This conversation assures all but the King that Hamlet is insane. The King, fearing that Hamlet?s ?madness? is associated with his own guilt, decides to send Hamlet away for a while. In Scene ii, the Players act out The Murder of Gonzago, with additional speeches, to make it seem more like [King] Hamlet?s murder. Upon Claudius? discomfort at the plot, Hamlet exclaims that since they all have ?free/souls? (III, ii, 227-8) the play should not touch them emotionally. However, Hamlet?s comforting does not help and Claudius reveals his guilt by getting up and leaving. The play frightens Claudius; he suspects that Hamlet is not insane but has become aware of Claudius? guilt. Claudius? pretense extends even to the spiritual; he goes through all the motions of prayer but his ?thoughts remain/below? (III, iii, 96-7). During his conversation with Gertrude in her closet, Hamlet continues acting mad, to the point of killing Polonius, but also gets his point across to Gertrude about how disappointed he is in her. At the end of the scene, the common thought still remains that Hamlet is mad and Claudius is innocent.

In Act IV, the general belief remains as before but Hamlet and Claudius are completely aware of each other’s true actions and motivations. Hamlet continues his ranting, taking advantage of his ?madness? to openly insult Claudius by showing how ?a king [Claudius] may go a progress through the guts of a beggar? (IV, iii, 31). Claudius sends Hamlet away to England claiming it is for Hamlet?s own good, but truthfully for the purpose of having him killed. Ophelia?s madness in Scene v is representative of a complete lack of pretense. It is a demonstration of true emotion; the opposite of Hamlet?s ?lunacy?. Claudius pretends that Ophelia?s madness disturbs him greatly, claiming that it causes him ?superfluous death.? (IV, v, 96) Like his sister, Laertes enters the scene with absolutely no pretense, he simply wants revenge and he says so immediately. Upon hearing that Hamlet is alive, Claudius sets about persuading Laertes to duel Hamlet to the death. Through flattery, Claudius persuades Laertes to duel and contrives a plan wherein Hamlet will die no matter what.

At the beginning of Act V, Hamlet and Horatio are walking through the churchyard on their way to the castle, discussing the Clowns. There Hamlet discovers that Ophelia has drowned. He claims that his sadness at Ophelia?s death ?conjures the wand?ring stars? (V, i, 256). Hamlet?s declarations of love for Ophelia enrage Laertes and make him even more determined to fight Hamlet. In Scene v, Claudius sends Osrick to persuade Hamlet to duel with Laertes; Hamlet agrees despite Horatio?s warnings. In the moments before the duel, Hamlet dispels all doubts as to his sanity; he acts very normally and apologizes to Laertes for killing Polonius. Laertes and Hamlet fight the duel and it appears that Hamlet will win. The Queen drinks from the poisoned glass intended for Hamlet and dies, thereby halting the duel. Laertes tells of Claudius? treachery before he too dies. Hamlet stabs and poisons the ?incestuous, murd?rous, damned? (V, ii, 326) Claudius. Hamlet then, very sanely, tells Horatio to tell the story and to appoint Fortinbras king and then he too dies.

Finally, the dissolution of pretense makes the motivations for all the characters? actions apparent. The characters? purposes, and the emotions they feigned to reach them become clear at the conclusion of the play. The motif of pretense which runs throughout William Shakespeare?s Hamlet resolves itself at the end.


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