Tera Ellefson

Hamlet Envisaged: Performance, Deceit, and the False Face

           From the title character’s feigned madness to the play-within-a-play, Hamlet is a play incredibly concerned with the idea of performance.  Even characters who do not immediately seem to play a role must act a part—of a virtuous king or queen, of an innocent old man, of an old friend.  And the most important part of their performance, they acknowledge, is control of their facial expression.  Will Claudius’ face betray his guilty knowledge during The Mouse-Trap?  Does Laertes’ face show his true desire for revenge?  The word “face” appears in several scattered senses and uses in Hamlet, but one facial-related word remains remarkably constant.  That word is “visage”. 

           At first, “visage” would seem to be used merely as a synonym for “face”—its first definition in the OED, and one current in Shakespeare’s day.  However, every time it appears in Hamlet, “visage” implies an assumed face, a face of deceit.  It is a face assumed to give a false impression of the wearer’s mental state—those who see it will assume the features “expressive of feeling or temperament”. (OED, 2nd ed., 3) 
           Its first use is by Hamlet, whose mother has chided him for his excessive grief.  He ranks “the dejected haviour of the visage” with “the trappings and the suits of woe”—only exterior signs, “actions that a man might play”.  And like Hamlet’s “inky cloak” or “customary suits”, his visage can be put on or taken off at will.  (I.ii.76-86)   According to Hamlet, the actor reciting his speech can make his “visage wanned / Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect… And all for nothing, / For Hecuba!”  The visage is false because it’s grief over nothing, over Hecuba.  (II.ii.492-497)  Polonius, too, manipulates Ophelia’s visage in an attempt to entrap Hamlet: “’Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage / And pious action we do sugar o’er / The devil himself.”  (III.i.47-49).  Ophelia’s show of devotion is a mask for Polonius’ machinations. 

           So far a “visage” has been a mask that hides one’s true countenance or true face.  And this is what Claudius seems to think in III.iii, when he attempts to pray.

… What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offense?  (III.iii.43-47)
           Claudius believes his hand can be washed free of the blood that covers it; and that in the same way, his “visage of offense” can be lifted away by mercy, and his true face revealed: “Then I’ll look up.”  Then, however, Claudius realizes that he cannot attain forgiveness as long as he still holds everything he has gained by the murder.  And heaven still knows what lies behind the mask:

There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.  (III.iii.61-65)
Claudius’ fault is not merely a “visage”.  It is written in his body, in teeth and forehead and “bosom black as death”.  His brother’s murder is not a sin that covers his self, but a sin inscribed in it.  His “visage” does not hold up in the eyes of Heaven.