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Masks of Hamlet


In Shakespeare^Òs 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 ^Ñmask^Ò 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
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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