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to thine own self be true: The Wise Polonius of Hamlet

The Wise Polonius of Hamlet

In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet there is one character, besides the protagonist, who is very quotable because of the wisdom of his comments. This is the father of Laertes and Ophelia, namely Polonius. He is the subject of this essay.

In “Shakespeare’s Nomenclature” Harry Levin discusses the name “Polonius’ and other names from the play:

The Latinism Polonius reminds us of the Polish question, moot throughout Hamlet, where the onomastics are polyglot. If Marcellus and Claudius are Latin, Bernardo and Horatio are Italian, and Fortinbras signifies “strong arm” not in Norwegian but French (fort-en-bras).

On the other hand, the son of Polonius has a Greek godfather in Laertes, the father of Odysseus. The Scandinavian names, at least the Germanic Gertrude, stand out because they are in the minority. (79)

What’s in a name like Polonius? Here is a literary critic who respects his advice: Rebecca West in “A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption” talks about Polonius:

Polonius is interesting because he was a cunning old intriguer who, like an iceberg, only showed one-eighth of himself above the surface. The innocuous sort of worldly wisdom that rolled off his tongue in butter balls was a very small part of what he knew. It has been insufficiently noted that Shakespeare would never have held up the action in order that Polonius should give his son advice as to how to conduct himself abroad, unless the scene helped him to develop his theme. But “This above all – to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man” (I.3.78), has considerable . . . value when it is spoken by an old gentleman who is presently going to instruct a servant to spy on his son, and to profess great anxiety about his daughter’s morals, when plainly he needed to send her away into the country if he really wanted her to retain any [. . .].(108)

Polonius’ entry into the play occurs at the social get-together of the royal court. Claudius has already been crowned; Queen Gertrude is there; Hamlet is present in the black clothes of mourning. When Laertes approaches Claudius to give his farewell before returning to school, the king asks Polonius: “Have you your father’s leave? What says Polonius?” And the father dutifully answers:

Polonius: A Fool in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Polonius: A Fool in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Hamlet is the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays for theater audiences and readers. It has been acted live in countries throughout the world and has been translated into every language. Polonius is one of the major characters in Hamlet, his role in the play is of great interest to scholars. Parts of Hamlet present Polonius as a fool, whose love of his own voice leads to his constant babbling. Scholars have been analyzing the character of
Polonius for centuries, and his role in Hamlet will continue to be analyzed for centuries to come. Scholars believe that Shakespeare created Polonius as a fool because of his foolish dialogue throughout the play.
Polonius granted Laertes permission to go back to school in France. While saying good-bye in his chambers, Polonius tells his son: Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in, Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. Give every man they ear, but few thy voice. Take each man’s censure, but reserve they judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not expressed in fancy (rich, not gaudy) For the apparel oft proclaims the man, And they in France of the best rank and station (Are) of a most select and generous chief in that. Neither a borrower or a lender (be,) For (loan) oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing (dulls the) edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
(1. 3. 71-87) The advice that Polonius gives to Laertes is simple and sounds foolish being told to a person of Laertes’ age. Martin Orkin comments on the nature of Polonius’ speech: 2 “Shakespeare’s first audience would recognize in Polonius’ predilection for such commonplace expressions of worldly wisdom a mind that runs along conventional tracks, sticking only to what is practically useful in terms of worldly self-advancement” (Orkin
179). Polonius gives Laertes simple advice, to keep his thoughts to himself and to never lend or borrow money. While this advice is simple, when looked at in full context his advice to his son is all about self-advancement. Polonius will go to all extremes to protect his reputation. Grebanier states on the foolishness of Polonius’ speech: “Such guidance will do for those who wish to make the world thei…

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…speare created Polonius as a very unique and complex character. Scholars argue and will continue to argue over the reasons for Polonius’ foolishness. Throughout the play Polonius tends to act foolish thinking that he knows the reason for Hamlet’s madness, while the audience knows that he is wrong.
Shakespeare created Polonius as a controversial character and only he will ever know why
Polonius was created so foolish.

Works Cited Grebanier, Bernard. The Heart of Hamlet. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell
Co, 1960. Hartwig, Joan. “Parodic Polonius”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language: vol. 13, 1971. Kirschbaum, Leo. Character and Characterization in Shakespeare. Detroit:
Wayne State UP, 1962. Oakes, Elizabeth. “Polonius, the Man behind the Arras: A Jungian
Study.” New Essays on Hamlet. New York: AMS Press, 1994. Orkin, Martin. “Hamlet and the Security of the South African State.” Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
New York: G.K. Hall and Co, 1995. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington Square Press published by Pocket Books,
1992. States, Bert O. Hamlet and the Concept of Character. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP,

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