The Masks of Hamlet





In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, there is a prevalent and almost overwhelming theme. All throughout the play, nearly all of the characters appear as one person, 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 are a 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, however, this might also be a mask. The women in the play, Ophelia and Gertrude, both use a mask to cover what is obvious in their lives, masking it so that they can continue living as if their existence was without cruelty. Finally Hamlet hides behind his madness, be it real or pretend, a person who is indecisive and spiteful. Characters in this 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 evil. In the same way as these characters, people in modern day life hide behind masks of their own.
The mask theme develops throughout the play as various characters try to cover their secret intentions with an outward display of a whole other person. One of the most obvious is Claudius. Claudius murdered his brother, the former King Hamlet, in order to become king himself. This murder was done in secret with no one but Claudius knowing that the act was committed by him. Not only is he now the king of Denmark, but he is also married to the Queen Gertrude, his brother’s former wife. These hideous and awful crimes have not been punished, and no one knows what Claudius has done. When Claudius encounters anyone, he must become someone totally different. He puts on a mask, he is no longer the self-serving, cold, calculating man that he really is, he becomes a kind and caring man who has the best interest of the kingdom in his heart. But is Claudius really the mask or is he what exists underneath? This is called into question when Claudius tries to seek redemption for his sins. This scene shows that his character, like Hamlet 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 being pardoned being down?”(III, iii, 49-53) 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.”(III, iii, 54-68) 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. In real life, people who have done something wrong create a mask to hide behind in hopes not being caught, just like Claudius did. When this mask is used often enough, people begin to lose track of the line between real and fake, also like Claudius.
The female roles in Hamlet use masks in a much different way. Both Ophelia and Gertrude mask themselves from the harsh realities of the life. Ophelia’s mask is far more fragile than any other. Despite the fact that Hamlet’s almost incessant cruelty to Ophelia drives her eventually insane, she puts up a defense trying to protect herself from Hamlet’s 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, he shatters the mask that served to protect her from his assaults, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!/ . . . And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,/ That