Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Not a Fop: Defending Polonius

This morning, for some reason, the famous speech from Polonius to his son, Laertes, from Hamlet, was on repeat in my skull. I thought to write about my notion that people misinterpret it. Here's the whole thing, in case it has been awhile for you. Laertes is about to return to college and Polonius, his seemingly foppish father, gives him this parting advice. (By the way, I say "seemingly foppish" because it is hard to have spent a career as the closest advisor to a powerful monarch and to have been a fool). To his son, he says:

And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd 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 nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
I gave you the whole thing, here, but mostly for you to consider the soundness of the advice. It is a speech about balance ("rich, not gaudy") and care in relationships ("loan oft loses both itself and friend"), etc. There is nothing here that is bad advice, as far as I'm, concerned...unless, you read "to thine own self be true" incorrectly. And most people do; people like this blogger, who seems to share the interpretation with the very people he is (rightly) criticizing for getting the Bard's words tattooed on their feet.

People see the line as a call for self-absorption. "Think of yourself first" or "take time out for yourself" (and we would, today, wouldn't we?). But I would argue, in context with all of the other balanced advice that Polonius gives, it is unlikely that he would end with such a decidedly modern (and blatantly un-Christian [think of the time period]) idea as selfishness. 

I never, in all my years of teaching Hamlet, saw "to thine own self be true" as a call for focusing on one's self. It makes a lot more sense to me, especially in context, that it means "tell yourself the truth." 

We all lie to ourselves on a frequent basis. Ever stand at an advantageous angle in the mirror while picking out clothing (hopefully rich, but not gaudy)?  Even make excuses for yourself -- for your failures; your shortcomings? Cripes, I even caught a few minutes of Dr. Phil yesterday and he was talking about the "Why Lie" with a disgruntled mom.

No, Polonius was not lauding selfishness or even "me time." He was telling his son that if one is honest with one's self, one will present one's self accurately to others. People will see the "true you" if you do. 

And the argument that Polonius is a fool does not, as I said, hold water. I could spend a day on this, but wouldn't it behoove a man of his position to play the fool? And doesn't he present himself, at times, as an insightful chap? Isn't it interesting, as well, that he is so sincere and stern with  his kids and only seems foolish at court? (See, especially, Ian Holme's portrayal.)

So go ahead and get the tattoo; but get it for the right reasons. Use it as a reminder not to BS yourself. 


  1. When learning a new language, it's often important to learn about the culture of that language. It helps you understand context and application where otherwise you would interpret it according to modern standards. You might say that learning a new language without learning a new culture isn't really "learning" the language at all.

    It's no different for Shakespeare, and it's inevitable to me that he would teach that very something which is seldom taught today -- integrity.

    1. Well said. I think it is logical that Polonius would be a man of his culture...and no fool.

  2. It absolutely blows me away that anyone thinks that means (in essence) be selfish. I'm no genius or literary scholar, but I can't imagine interpreting Polonius's words to mean anything other than "know your priorities and values and stay true to them." Have integrity, as anonymous said above.

    And, I'm sorry to do this, but I CAN NOT hear this speech without thinking of Gilligan's Island:

    1. No apology necessary. My first exposure to this speech was Gilligan's Island. And they say that was a bad show.