Hamlet: The Theme of Masks


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
and 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 Cladius 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, “Where to serves mercy/ But to confront the visage of offense?/ And
that\'s in prayer but his twofold force,/ to be forestalled are we come to
fall,/ Or pardoned being down?” (3.3.50-54) He then answers his own 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.” (3.3.55-
59) 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 in Hamlet are confused in a much different way. Both Ophelia and
Gertrude mask themselves to the harsh realities of their life. Ophelia\'s 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\'s cruelty, but it fails. Ophelia believes
for awhile , that hamlets loves her deeply, and that he would never harm her
directly. But soon, through his words and his actions, such as killing her
farther, shatter 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\' betrayal. Her mask is one
that puts herself into her world. As long as she lives her life