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That Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, is a character of considerable importance is accepted as true by most literary critics. This essay will develop the notion of his vital importance to the drama.
Ruth Nevo in her essay, “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging,” states the importance of Polonius to the hero’s evolution in the play on the occasion of Ophelia’s decoying the hero for the sake of observation by Claudius and Polonius:
But it should be noted that we actually need no further explanation for Hamlet’s sudden “Where’s your father?” than the fact that he has not recently been permitted her presence unchaperoned, if at all. And his apparent change of mood at that point in the scene might well be attributed to recollected angry resentment at Polonius’ interference in his affairs. Indeed, this would seem to be born out by the diatribe on calumny – he being calumniated and exposed by his courtship of Ophelia to the insulting aspersions of such as Polonius.
I am inclined to believe that the deeper dramatic purpose of the scene is obscured if Hamlet is made or becomes aware of Polonius at any point in the scene. For if Hamlet knows that Polonius is behind the arras, then he knows that Ophelia is lying when she tells him her father is at home [. . .]. (49)
In the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet, David Bevington presents Polonius as similar to Hamlet in various ways:
Polonius, his [Hamlet’s] seeming opposite in so many ways, is, like Hamlet, an inveterate punster. To whom else but Polonius should Hamlet direct the taunt of “Words, words, words”? The aged counselor recalls that in his youth he “suffered much extremity for love, very near this,” and he has been an actor at the university. Polonius too has advice for the players: “Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.” When Hamlet jibes at “so capital a calf” enacting Julius Caesar, killed in the Capitol, he reinforces the parallel to his own playacting and anticipates the slaying of Polonius behind the arras. (4)
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.
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He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave
By laboursome petition, and at last
Upon his will I seal'd my hard consent:
I do beseech you, give him leave to go. (1.2)
So right at the outset the reader/viewer respects the lord chamberlain as a very fluent spokesman of the language, and respectful of his superior, the king. Later, in Polonius’ house, Laertes is taking leave of his sister, Ophelia, and, in the process, giving her conservative advice regarding her boyfriend, Hamlet. Quietly Polonius enters and begins to advise Laertes regarding life away from home:
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! (1.3)
Such quotable advice Polonius gives, showing the wisdom of his age and position. Very politely Laertes bids his father goodbye and leaves with his servants. Here is a literary critic who respects the lord chamberlain’s 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)
Later, to make certain that Laertes adheres strictly to his advice, Polonius equips his man, Reynaldo, with “money’ and “notes” to take to Laertes, and while there, to inquire about his conduct:
At 'closes in the consequence,' ay, marry;
He closes thus: 'I know the gentleman;
I saw him yesterday, or t' other day,
Or then, or then; with such, or such; and, as you say,
There was a' gaming; there o'ertook in's rouse;
There falling out at tennis:' or perchance,
'I saw him enter such a house of sale,'
Videlicet, a brothel, or so forth.
See you now;
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:
So by my former lecture and advice,
Shall you my son. You have me, have you not? (2.1)
Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” comments on Polonius’ controlling attitude toward those around him:
Polonius, the lord chamberlain, has been putting about in his secretive way, making sure that his children obey all his precepts that have been given them. He sets a servant to spy on his son’s behavior in Paris, in the calm conviction he is doing it only for his son’s good, and it is for his daughter’s good that he has ordered her to see no more of Hamlet. (37-38)
We see Polonius developing into a character of complex temperament and motivation, which would render him quite “rounded” (Abrams 33); in other words, he is one of Shakespeare’s “sharply etched characters” (Wilkie and Hurt 2155). Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “Hamlet: A Man Who Thinks Before He Acts” explain the popularity of Shakespeare’s three-dimensional characters:
Much of the delight of modern readers, of course, comes from the study of the characters of the principal figures in the play, for Shakespeare has presented them in three-dimensional vividness. We feel that they are living beings with problems that are perennially human. (62)
With Laertes gone, Polonius has an opportunity to involve himself with Ophelia’s relationship with Prince Hamlet. He asks rather directly: “What is between you? give me up the truth.” She responds concerning his recent “tenders of affection,” to which Polonius reacts with considerable skepticism and with lots of forceful advice:
From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley. For Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him, that he is young
And with a larger tether may he walk
Than may be given you: in few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. (1.3)
With meekness Ophelia promises to follow her father’s directives. Gunnar Boklund in “Judgment in Hamlet” evaluates Polonius’ advice:
Of the minor weeds which disturb Hamlet, Polonius is the most troublesome. We know that his advice to Ophelia and Laertes closely parallels the wisdom that eminently respectable Elizabethan fathers bestowed on their children; prudence was a more commendable virtue in the Renaissance than now, and the sentiment of “This above all, to thine own self be true” remains, I should hope, unexceptionable today. But Polonius’ prudence, loyalty to the King, and pitiful death in his service do not make him the “good old man” that the Queen sees in him. He is a gentleman of the situation who, for his own and his master’s purposes, manipulates human beings, including his own children, and who does not even do it very well. (122)
Meanwhile, Horatio and Marcellus have contacted Hamlet, who is dejected at the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle less than two months after the funeral of Hamlet’s father (Gordon 128). They urge the prince out onto the ramparts, where, at one a.m. the Ghost, ironically a sinner suffering in the afterlife (West 110), reveals to the protagonist the extent of the evil within Elsinore, “the human truth” (Abrams 467). The Ghost says that King Hamlet I was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests a “restorative” revenge (Gooch 1) by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” states that henceforth the prince “is not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it” (258), thus increasing the tension in the hero’s life.
Hamlet resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions while he establishes whether the ghost is “from heaven, purgatory or hell” (Levine 8). Ophelia is, unfortunately, the first to experience the hero’s new “madness,” and she is terrorized by his visit and disheveled appearance. Polonius diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love:
Come, go with me: I will go seek the king.
This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures. I am sorry.
What, have you given him any hard words of late? (2.1)
Ophelia gives her father a love-letter from Hamlet, and this he takes to read to the king and “kindly, slow witted” (Pitt 47) queen: “'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia,'—“ In order to more closely analyze Hamlet’s problem, Polonius makes a proposal to the king:
At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
Be you and I behind an arras then;
Mark the encounter: if he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters. (2.2)
Before the rendezvous takes place, Polonius talks with the hero to try to learn something. His step-by-step psychoanalysis is transmitted to the audience through asides:
[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my
daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this. I'll speak to him again.
What do you read, my lord?
[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method
in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord? (2.2)
When the acting troupe arrives at court, Polonius very excitedly tells Hamlet, hoping to penetrate his mind more deeply:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men. (2.2)
At the time of the “chance” meeting with Ophelia, Hamlet is already feeling quite low, and perhaps even contemplating suicide: “To be, or not to be: that is the question. . . .” And when the hero suspects Ophelia’s collaboration with others as a decoy or lure for himself, he is completely alienated from her: “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Polonius, listening with Claudius behind the arras, steadfastly maintains his theory of lovesickness:
It shall do well: but yet do I believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love. How now, Ophelia!
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said;
We heard it all. My lord, do as you please;
But, if you hold it fit, after the play
Let his queen mother all alone entreat him
To show his grief: let her be round with him;
And I'll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference. If she find him not,
To England send him, or confine him where
Your wisdom best shall think. (3.1)
The concealment of Polonius behind the curtains in Gertrude’s room sounds like a workable way to eavesdrop of Hamlet after the viewing of the “play within a play”:
Behind the arras I'll convey myself,
To hear the process; and warrant she'll tax him home:
And, as you said, and wisely was it said,
'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
The speech, of vantage. (3.3)
The hero, in his “madness,” demonstrates his vocation (Rosenberg 63) and redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. With Horatio and Hamlet observing the king’s reaction, Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder of his brother, thus confirming the ghost’s utterance. Consequently Hamlet prepares for revenge.
En route to his mother’s room, Hamlet passes on an opportunity to kill Claudius because the king is in prayer and perhaps would not go to the punishing flames of hell (Kliman 155). While conversing with his mother, the very emotionally upset Hamlet (“O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom. . . .”) detects sound behind the arras and kills the subject of this essay -- Polonius. Hamlet regrets the accidental death of Polonius, whom he mistook for the king. He repents before dragging the body of the lord chamberlain from his mother’s room:
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. (3.4)
The killing of Polonius, plus the suspicion of Claudius that Hamlet knows the king murdered Hamlet I, cause Claudius to send the Prince by ship to England with an unsuspecting escort (Madariaga), where the prince will be put to death. Polonius’ death, along with the rejection by Hamlet, cause Ophelia to lose her sanity and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go to their deaths. This madness, in turn, causes Laertes to plot with Claudius the “certain death” of the prince (Burton); which, in turn, results in the deaths of all the remaining main characters. The death of Polonius is so key to the rest of the narrative. Polonius is the first domino; and the others follow his fall.
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)
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Nevo, Ruth. “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from Tragic Form in Shakespeare. N.p.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
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