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.
Act I, Scene iii
Perhaps no other character in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, short of the title character himself, is as widely quoted as Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. Few who proclaim the words “to thine own self be true” are aware of the irony in their original context, coming as they do after 19 lines of stern and sometimes contradictory admonition to his son Laertes. They are, in fact, the crowning contradiction of the speech, but this fact also highlights the paradoxical nature of their speaker, who is Shakespeare’s most highly born clown and also the first to meet a tragic death since the play has begun.
As Lord Chamberlain, Polonius is one of the chief advisors to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. Apparently a widower, he is father to Laertes and Ophelia. Through their relationships to the Royal Family, it would seem that they rank in the higher nobility. A commoner might achieve the rank of Lord Chamberlain, but it is less likely that his children would be socially acquainted with the prince unless he were first raised to a noble station.
Both Laertes and Ophelia are seen as fixtures of the court as much as their father; and Ophelia, more particularly, has unofficially been courted by Prince Hamlet. Judging from the timeframe of the play, their dalliance would have gone on even before the death of Hamlet’s father. Polonius’ harsh words when he becomes aware of this romance demonstrate how aware he is of the social gap between his daughter and the prince; and yet the queen’s words to Ophelia in Act III, Scene i, suggest that this match is neither unthinkable nor unwelcome.
Indeed, under different circumstances, either of Polonius’ children might conceivably have sat upon the Throne of Denmark: Ophelia as Hamlet’s bride, or Laertes as a result of a coup d’etat that almost resulted in the wake of Polonius’ death. Whatever titles Polonius might have held, it seems likely that his was one of the foremost families in Denmark.
The role of advisor is a fitting one for him, and Polonius dispenses his advice in copious quantity, quite often reversing himself in the process. The contradictions in his counsel to his son have already been observed; similarly, he reverses himself in his commands to his daughter, although in this case it is political expediency that drives the change. At first, he would chase his daughter from Hamlet as quickly as she could run, for fear of what consequences the affair might have for his family; and then, as Hamlet behaves ever more erratically, Polonius urges her toward him with renewed vigor.
Clearly, he is capable of cold calculation and even straightforward manipulation, while at the same time he is the sort of fellow so enamored of the sound of his own voice that he burdens even official counsel to the Royal Family with clever but pointless speechifying, as in Act II, Scene ii: “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit/ And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,/ I will be brief.” This he says, but does not.
His manner sometimes exasperates the king and queen, but still they come to him for advice. Ever loyal, obedient and, in action if not in words, efficient, he may very well be indispensable to the Danish State. The crisis growing around Prince Hamlet, however, proved stronger than any of its human participants.
Perhaps it is fitting that this character’s final paradox is that he fell victim to an accidental murder. Mistaken for the king himself, he was cut down by Hamlet, and the consequences were far worse for all than if the prince’s blade had met its intended mark. If Claudius had died, Hamlet would likely have claimed the throne successfully. His story about his father’s ghost revealing his uncle’s perfidy would have provided sufficient cover to accept Hamlet’s succession; historically, usurpers have gotten away with much less justification.
As it so transpired, however, a foolish advisor took his master’s place, destroying all around him. His daughter went mad and killed herself; his son died in a rigged duel with the prince, who also perished. His master and mistress died, too, in the miscarriage of the king’s own contingency plan, and while this family squabble played out, a hostile force approached the castle. When Fortinbras arrived, there was no longer a dynasty to replace.
At once a skillful and a foolish servant of Denmark, Polonius played a key role in the unfolding, and the undoing, of Hamlet’s plan to avenge his father’s death. In life he was a tedious but dedicated official; in death, he brought doom to all around him. His passing is the fulcrum of the play, and once Hamlet has identified his victim, he understands that the consequences will be grave:
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him.
Act III, Scene iv
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