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Reality and appearances, or if you prefer, being and acting, are important themes for both Machiavelli and Shakespeare. Why? How do their perspectives on this subject agree or differ?
One of the most fundamental questions in philosophy is the appearance vs. reality. We find ourselves asking the question of what is genuinely “real,” and what is viewed merely as just an “appearance,” and not real? It becomes difficult when we assume there is a difference in the two to determine which is which. Generally, what we label as “real” is regarded as external and eternal. What we refer to as just an appearance is regarded as temporary and internal.
Many early as well as modern day authors use the theme of appearance vs. reality to portray a character in a certain way. One of the most appreciated one of these authors is William Shakespeare. The theme of Appearance vs. Reality is extremely noted in Williams Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Also, the Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli is the other one who examines the issues of reality and appearance.
Similarly, William Shakespeare and Machiavelli tell us about ‘princes’. Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” can be summarized as a young prince’s journey in life to discover the truth of his father’s death. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is a kind of ‘training guide’ for leaders, or in other words it is a kind of description of what a leader should do in order to effectively lead his country. The common subject of these works is reality vs. appearance therefore in this paper the theme of appearance vs. reality will be explored by closely analyzing both of these texts of Machiavelli and Shakespeare. Additionally their perspectives will be compared and contrasted in order to understand that whether they have the same point of view or not.
Throughout the Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”, the deceitfulness of some main characters is portrayed. The most significant one of these is Claudius, who is Hamlet’s uncle as well as the king’s brother; he deceitfully marries the recently widowed queen, and takes the throne. Many of the characters in the story are viewed as being honest and innocent characters, but in reality they are evil in their actions as well as in their speeches. There are really four dishonest characters that could be the perfect examples for the theme of appearance vs. reality, and they are Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the newly crowned king Claudius.
When these characters are first introduced in this story, they tend to come across as being truthful and honorable, but in reality they have many evil sides that show when they play their deceitful roles against Hamlet as well as against the people of Denmark. Their innocent appearances become difficult obstacles for Hamlet as he struggles and trying to find the truth behind his father’s death, for he is unsure of whom he can trust. This is a question that Hamlet has on his mind throughout the play.
The events and characters within the play appear to be true and honest but in reality they are infested with evil. Many of the characters within the play hide behind a mask of falseness. From behind this mask they give the impression of a person, who is sincere and genuine, in reality they are plagued with lies and malice. There appearance will make it very difficult for Hamlet to uncover the truth because the characters conceal their real intentions with a mask.
Polonius, the king’s royal assistant has a preoccupation with appearance; he always wants to keep up the appearance of a loving and a caring person. Polonius appears like a man who loves and cares about his son, Laertes. He really does an excellent job trying to make others believe that he is a loving father who is only interested in helping his son to grow up in the right way and become prosperous in life. His speeches can be described as sounding the way the speeches of a politician would. They are blunt, well written, and directly to the point, but are never meant to be sincere. He gives his son Laertes his blessing to go away, but he sends a spy to follow him and keep an eye on him. Although he appears to be a confident father he does not trust his son to go away on his own. Furthermore, Polonius adds to the theme of appearance versus reality by ordering Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet.
He lies to her by telling her that Hamlet does not love her, he only lusts for her. Two of Hamlet’s closest friends from his childhood Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can as well be viewed as liars who become very deceitful to Hamlet. After being asked by the king to find out what is bothering Hamlet, the two go to Hamlet pretending to see him as a friend, but are in reality just obeying the king’s orders. When they ask what is troubling Hamlet, they become insincere, and almost sound as though they had rehearsed what it was they were going to say. Hamlet noticed that the boys were told to do this and states, “A dream itself is but a shadow” (Hamlet 73). Hamlet then realized that his own friend were not in reality any friends at all. The king again sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to apologize for their behavior but Hamlet noticed their intentions yet again and simply insulted them. Hamlet’s supposed friends greatly add to the theme of appearance vs. reality.
The last character is Claudius, the brother of the deceased king, who was crowned the new king of Denmark is viewed as an honest and honorable man. As seen in a speech given by Claudius in the presence of the council in Act One Scene Two, he demonstrates his excellent public speaking skills: “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death The memory be green, and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow of woe” (Hamlet 33). Although Claudius seems sincere in his words, he cares so little about his brother’s death and only cares about himself. He is just living the life that once belonged to his brother as the king of Denmark and is extremely happy to be at the head of the thrown; something he had previously longed for. His speeches are given with respect for himself, his country and others. In Act One, you see that Hamlet directly insults Claudius, but the king continues to behave as if he is a loving and a caring uncle and step-father towards his nephew.
In Machiavellian sense, all of these characters are using their appearances to their benefits, strategically they are using them to gain power or for their own benefits. In Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” he suggests, “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.” (Machiavelli, 58) In short, he says that the strongest leaders are the ones who are able to carefully balance appearance to his benefits. According to Machiavelli’s statement, Claudius starts off as an ideal Machiavellian prince. At the beginning of the play, Claudius appears to have complete control over Elsinore, as evidenced by his imposing speech to the court; “Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, The imperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we (as it were a defeated joy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage, in equal scale weighing delight and dole) Taken to wife…(1.2: 8-14)
In this scene, Claudius, who has only recently taken the throne after the death of his brother, addresses some pressing issues. Seeking to create a strong early impression, Claudius uses his words very carefully. Furthermore with the words “imperial jointress to this warlike state” he justifies the potentially controversial union by making it appear like a benefit to the entire kingdom. The phrases which are chosen by Claudius, “mirth in funeral” and “dirge in marriage” recall Machiavelli’s words, for Claudius demonstrating his ability to express whatever emotions make him look wise and just, showing that he is in command of Denmark, despite his limited experience as a king.
Consequently, as the play develops, Claudius loses his immovable command and composure, largely due to his concern over the potential threat posed by his stepson, Hamlet. According to Machiavelli there are ways of becoming a prince. Claudius becomes a king by killing his own brother, in Machiavellian sense; he is “a man who becomes a prince by some criminal and nefarious method”. (Machiavelli, 28) Claudius’ method is presented in Machiavelli’s book and from his perspective it is not a wrong method. However, one can acquire “prince power by this way but not glory”. (Machiavelli, 29) Therefore, Claudius has taken the throne but he was not glorious and has not glory.
Actually, he is not virtuous. At the end of the play we see the gradual fall of Claudius, although he has a confident appearance and succeeds in becoming a strong leader, it is unable to heal the deep wounds in his soul. It is impossible not to feel sorry for him as he struggles with the task of balancing his outward appearance with his interior thought. Therefore, Shakespeare shows his inner conflict and dilemmas. Machiavelli seems to be unaware of these facts, feeling of regret and repentance. Claudius above every other character in the play shows how the theme of reality versus appearance is relevant to the great play written by Williams Shakespeare, known as “Hamlet”.