by Lincoln Sayger
Throughout history, mistakes, illusions, deceptions, and miscommunications have turned the direction of events great and small as well as the plots of many stories. The theme of appearance versus reality is a common one in both truth and fiction, and William Shakespeare made good use of it. Shakespeare's _The_Tragedy_of_Hamlet,_Prince_of_Denmark_ contains this theme throughout, but one act in which the theme has great weight is the third act, which contains three particular instances where the distinction between appearance and reality powerfully changes the direction of the plot.
One instance of this distinction between appearance and reality is the play-within-a-play. On the surface, it appears to be a bit of frivolity and entertainment for the apparently mad Hamlet, but Hamlet has a deeper plan than entertainment. The reality behind the miniature play is an informal stress analyzer by which Hamlet will ascertain whether Claudius is guilty of murdering the former king.
Another instance of this distinction is Claudius' apparent repentance. After seeing Claudius' reaction to the play, Hamlet is sure he is guilty. When he comes to exact justice on Claudius, he finds the usurper kneeling, apparently in prayer and perhaps repentance. Not wanting to execute the villain when the execution might become a reward, Hamlet forestalls the justice. After Hamlet leaves, however, the audience learns that Claudius has been unable to repent, since he does not wish to relinquish the spoils of his evil deeds.
A third instance of this distinction is Hamlet's mistaking Polonius for Claudius in Gertrude's chambers. Because Hamlet expects only Claudius to be in Gertrude's chambers, that is who the spy behind the arras appears to him to be. In reality, though, it is Polonius, whom Hamlet had no intention of killing. It is poetic justice, since he is where he should not be, but it is a tragic death.
Act three of Shakespeare's _The_Tragedy_of_Hamlet,_Prince_of_Denmark_ contains three powerful instances when the difference between appearance and reality turns the course of the plot. The miniature play in scene two results in the ultimate demise of Claudius. Claudius' deceptive appearance of repentant prayer results in Hamlet's postponing of the usurper's execution. Hamlet's mistaking of Polonius for Claudius results in Hamlet's death. Of these three illusions, the most powerful is the second. Because of Hamlet's decision to postpone Claudius' execution in scene three, six people die unnecessarily: Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet, himself. In addition to these, had Claudius been dispatched in scene three, perhaps Ophelia need not have died, either. Like the single act of treachery which began this whole bloody story, this one decision affected many people, as a domino falling affects many beyond it.
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