The Masks of Hamlet


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Masks of Hamlet

Hamlet   In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, there is a prevalent

and almost overwhelming theme.  All throughout the play, all

of the characters appear as one thing, with one standpoint,

and one outlook. However on the inside, all of these

characters are completely different. “This Mask” theme,  the

way that all of the characters portray themselves as one

person on the outside and one different one on the inside,

is not in the least disguised by Shakespeare. Claudius, the

murdering king, appears to be a somewhat kind, caring, and

friendly person. But inside he is different. He is cold,

calculating, and self-serving. But this might also be a

mask. The women in the play, Ophelia and Gertrude, both use

a type of mask to cover what is obvious in their lives,

masking it so that they can continue living as if their

existence was without cruelty. And finally Hamlet hides

behind his madness, be it real or pretend, a person who is

indecisive and spiteful. Masks in this play are not just a

theme; they are the whole basis of it.

 

     The mask theme develops throughout the play as various

characters try to cover their secret intentions with a

veneer of a whole other person. One of the most obvious, of

course is Claudius.  Claudius murdered his brother, the

former king Hamlet, in order to become king himself. This   

murder, which was done in secret, with no one but Claudius

knowing that the act was committed by him. Not only is he

the King of Denmark, but he is also married to Queen

Gertrude, his brothers former wife.  These hideous and awful

crimes have not been punished, and no one knows that

Claudius has done this.  When Claudius confronts anyone, he

must become someone totally different. Claudius puts on a

mask of his own. He is no longer the self-serving, cold,

calculating man that he really is, out he becomes a kind,

caring man who does his very best to ensure that Gertrude

stays with him, and also so that he can do his best to keep

Hamlet from trying to take the kingdom and destroy what

Claudius has worked for so long to gain.

To this end Claudius wears his mask. But is Claudius really

the mask or what he is underneath? This is called into

question when Claudius tries to seek redemption for his

sins. This scene shows that his character, like Hamlets is

not quite as clear cut as most men. Claudius wrestles with

his guilt by asking himself, ^ÓWhere to serves mercy/ But to

confront the visage of offense?/ And that^Òs in prayer but

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his twofold force,/ to be forestalled are we come to fall,/

Or pardoned being down?^Ô He then answers his own question by

saying, ^ÓBut, O, what form of prayer/ can serve my turn?

^ÓForgive me my foul murder?^Ô/ 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.^Ô So

Claudius comes to the understanding that, even though he

wears redemption like his outside self, his real self cannot

give up the trappings of this position.  Claudius, in his

questioning, has separated the mask from the person and has

found that the mask is the fake Claudius. Not every

character is so confused as to their nature, however.

 

     The females roles in Hamlet are confused in a much

different way. Both Ophelia and Gertrude mask themselves to

the harsh realities of their life. Ophelia^Òs mask is far

more fragile than any other. Despite Hamlets almost

incessant cruelty to Ophelia drives her, eventually insane.

She puts up a defense at first, trying to protect herself

from Hamlet^Òs cruelty, but it fails. Ophelia believes for

awhile , that Hamlet loves her deeply, and that he would

never harm her directly. But soon, through his words and

his actions, such as killing her father, shatters her mask

that served to protect her from Hamlets assaults.  When the

truth and reality bit her, she breaks under its pressure and

commits suicide. Gertrude, the other woman in the play,

has a much stranger mask. She refuses to see or believe the

truth that Hamlet shows her, the truth that Claudius

murdered her husband for the kingdom. She is also convinced

of Hamlets madness, but what he says does not affect her

much at all. Even at her death she does not realize of see

the truth of Claudius^Ò betrayal. Her mask is one that puts

herself into her world. As long as she lives her life

unaffected, she is happy, and she will not let anything

shatter her fantasy.

 

     But the most complicated, and one of the best examples

of a mask is Hamlet himself.  The line between Hamlet^Òs mask

and his reality is very fine and difficult to discern. His

mask, or as it would seem to be, is his madness. Hamlet

certainly acts the part well, for even if his madness is

real, it is still a mask to cover his real self and his real

plans. In his mad delusions he hurts countless people with

his verbal attacks.  He ruins his standing and the standing

of others as well. Either way his madness can be looked

upon, it still acts as a mask of his real self, an

undecided, cruel, suspicious person who care for little

but those who either are close to him, or have wronged him.

Hamlet kills innocent people such as Rosencratz,

Guildenstern, and Polonius, with no thought at all to the

possible repercussions that murder could have.

     

               After killing Polonius, Hamlet encounters Laertes,

Polonius^Ò son. Laertes, knowing that Hamlet was responsible

for Polonius^Ò death, attacks Hamlet. Hamlet cannot

understand why; he literally does not realize that Laertes

might be enraged with anger. Later Hamlet blames Polonius^Ò

death on his own madness, saying to Horatio, ^ÓIf Hamlet from

himself be ta^Òen away,/ And when he^Òs not himself does

wrong Laertes,/ Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it./

Who does it then? His madness.^Ô  The fact that Hamlet can

differentiate between his madness, his mask, and himself

shows that not only does he not care about the damage he

causes, but also that he has a mask and it. If he has a

mask of madness, then it proves that he cares not for

Ophelia. His actions towards her are atrocious, his

attacks basically unnarrated. After she kills herself,

Hamlet finds her grave site and says, from his true self, ^ÓI

loved Ophelia, Forty thousand brothers/ could not with their

quantity of love/ Make up my sum.^Ô

If Hamlet loved Ophelia so, then he would not have treated

her so badly. His madness was a mask, no matter how thin,

that covered up his resentment of Ophelia, and women in

general. He treats his mother horribly, threatening her, and

forcing her to submit to his will. Also Hamlet shows his

real self by forging a death warrant for them, and having

them killed without their last rites. This unabashed cruelty

is not madness- it is Hamlet himself. His madness is a

simple cover to mask his real doings and feelings.

 

     Everyone in Hamlet has a mask. These all serve to

provide their ^Óinner selves ^Ó with protection, and also to

enable them to receive something that they want to get. From

the women wanting a perfect world; to Claudius seeking to

convince everyone of his kindness, while inside he is

venomous, and to Hamlet and his mad masking of his inner

spite and indecisiveness. The theme of masks is developed

early on, and reaches a climax where all characters at one

time hear false appearances. And as such, this theme is the

control basis for the actions of the characters in the play.

 

 


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