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The Character of Polonius in Hamlet Research Paper

Related Topics: Character Literature Hamlet Wisdom

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Polonius: A Literature Review

As chief counselor to the king of Denmark, Polonius plays an important and nefarious role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet—yet his words are often quoted out of context and it is Polonius, the spying, lying, manipulating old fool of a father and counselor who gives one of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines: “To thine own self be true!” (Shakespeare 1.3.564). Polonius shows of course that it matters not if one is being true to one’s self because the self is a chameleon that shifts and changes depending on the environment: Polonius adapts his character to the situation, as does Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and so on (Wilson; Landy). Horatio is one of the few characters who consistently expresses himself from scene to scene; the others attempt to deceive regularly, and deceive themselves throughout. Instead of being true to God or to others, Polonius’s counsel is essentially a bit of advice on how to deceive, even though he masks it in words regarding how one should best go about being honest (Landy). This literature review provides an assessment of the relevant literature pertaining to Polonius’s character and “wisdom.”

As Wilson notes, the line given by Polonius on how to be “true” is Shakespeare’s attempt to eviscerate the maxim and proverb spouting, Puritanical virtue signalers of his day:  “It is his satire of moral entrepreneurs” (Wilson par. 15). The entire speech of Polonius in Act I, scene 3 is “a bed of contradiction and a satirical portrait of hypocrisy” (Wilson par. 14). The “wise” counselor is supposed to be advising his son, and yet he is rationalizing duplicity all the while as well as the duplicitous nature of the self. In fact, the play itself is a condemnation of the idea of a “pure” self—for every character is riddled through and through with conflict—a good self at war with a bad self, to put it mildly. Rather traditionally the concept has always been depicted as a good angel vs. a bad angel, one on either shoulder of every individual. Polonius’s good angel is rarely seen in the play: he is constantly serving as the king’s bad angel, though he has so deceived himself that he thinks his counsel is good. His reward is death and Shakespeare does not dole out punishment lightly—everything has a meaning (Cox).

The point that Wilson makes is that Polonius is not to be taken as a font of wisdom or good counsel. His focus on the self as a kind of moral compass is an indication of that—for the self can become lost, confused, and false—and Polonius himself points that out when he admonishes Ophelia: “You do not understand yourself. . . . Think yourself a baby” (1.3.95, 104)—which prompts Wilson to ask, “If Laertes should be true to himself, why does Polonius not extend this same courtesy to Ophelia?” (par. 16). The answer lies in the conception of “the self” that Polonius has. He is not referring to an objective essence that exists as a standard by which one should judge—i.e., an Ideal Form or Transcendental Virtue. To be true to one of those would make sense as they are absolute, unchanging, fixed like the North Star. Polonius instead recommends one be true to something that is not fixed, that is constantly undergoing subjective revisioning. Moreover, to some degree, Polonius wants to be the one to determine what his children’s “self” should be: “There is no meaningful sense in which Laertes and Ophelia have internal essences to which their external actions make reference. Instead, ‘the self’ is Polonius’s image for the version of his children that he wants to see. Polonius is his children’s self,” Wilson states (par. 16).

Of course, not everyone reads the character of Polonius the same way. Some, like Farahmandfar and Samigorganroodi, take his advice to heart and believe that it conveys the height of wisdom: “Authenticity (eigentlich) is reflected in the integrity of character,” Farahmandfar and Samigorganroodi maintain (26). They…

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…In other words, one should be true to something that is unchanging—not something inconstant.

Hadfield’s contention is that Polonius represents the institutionalization of lying in Shakespeare’s day, which was itself undergoing a massive, sweeping change. It had been a Catholic country for a thousand years—and virtually overnight with King Henry’s rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church it became a Protestant country and Catholics suddenly found themselves a persecuted bunch. To facilitate the change in England, all manner of nefarious, self-interested individuals clamored for position in the King’s and later the Queen’s court, willing to do or say anything to get there. Shakespeare’s disgust for the lying politicians of his time is seen in his treatment of Polonius (Hadfield). Polonius represents the scheming counselors of the English courts in Shakespeare’s day, according to Hadfield’s thesis.

In summation, the literature on the character and “wisdom” of Polonius is mixed. Farahmandfar and Samigorganroodi fall for the maxim “to thine own self be true” and find it to be a good moral for leading one through life. Others, from Cox to Landy to Hadfield and Wilson, find the character of Polonius to be idiotic, despicable, false, and morally reprehensible. Felce and Di provide some contrast between the characters of Hamlet and Polonius by noting that Hamlet is a truth seeker in the castle of Denmark, while Cox, Hadfield, Landy and Wilson argue that Polonius is a liar, a knave, and an unwise counselor—a busybody who would have done better to mind his own affairs rather than involve himself in the business of the royal family. He is altogether so manipulative and controlling that he orders Ophelia to break off her engagement with Hamlet and it is only with Polonius’s death that Ophelia loses her mind, arguably because she has been relying upon Polonius up to that point for direction and now has no “head” to tell her what to do. Instead of empowering his own daughter to be her own person, he orders her about as though…

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Works Cited

Cox, Roger L. Between earth and heaven: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and the meaning of Christian tragedy. Holt McDougal, 1969.

Di, Poona Mtrive. "Unraveling Hamlet’s Spiritual and Sexual Journeys: An Inter- critical Detour via the Gita and Gandhi." Shakespeare’s Asian Journeys. Routledge, 2016. 75-86.

Farahmandfar, Masoud, and Gholamreza Samigorganroodi. "" To Thine Own Self Be True": Existentialism in Hamlet and The Blind Owl." International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies 3.2 (2015): 25-31.

Felce, Ian. "In Search of Amlóða saga: The Saga of Hamlet the Icelander." Studies in the Transmission and Reception of Old Norse Literature: The Hyperborean Muse in European Culture. Edited by Judy Quinn and Adele Cipolla (2016): 101-22.

Hadfield, Andrew. "Jonson and Shakespeare in an Age of Lying." Ben Jonson Journal 23.1 (2016): 52-74.

Landy, Joshua. "To Thine Own Selves Be True-ish." Shakespeare's Hamlet: Philosophical Perspectives (2017): 154.

Wilson, Jeffrey R. What Shakespeare Says About Sending Our Children Off to College. No. 402071. 2016.

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