Polonius is the ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ in Hamlet who comes to an untimely end when Hamlet accidentally stabs him. Hamlet’s farewell words are often taken as a definitive epitaph for Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, who does indeed earn every one of those descriptors.
Traditionally, Polonius has been played as a pompous windbag who, while not actually deserving such an end, isn’t much mourned. He’s never been a ‘fashionable’ character. Unlike other personae who have a greater imaginative impact, Ophelia and Rosencranz and Guildenstern, for example, Polonius hasn’t been seized on and reinterpreted for different audiences.
But that doddery old laughing stock may be seen with fresh eyes if we acknowledge that the faults for which he is so roundly mocked may be mirrored in contemporary behaviour. Shamefully, perhaps, there’s a bit of us in Polonius. We just dress up similar character traits in more attractive and appealing clothing.
Let’s start with the ‘old’, a word which sticks to Polonius like a limpet and encourages us to dismiss him. His age isn’t stipulated, though. He’s defined through his court role as chamberlain or chief counsellor. True, he is referred to in the play as ‘old’, but mainly by Hamlet, and we all know that Young People consider everyone more than 10 years their senior to be ancient. He is the widowed father of two attractive YPs, Ophelia and Laertes. So he’s a dad with a son going off to France to study, and a daughter who has caught the eye of a Royal.
Polonius’s job is first-man-about-court, one close to the king. He plays court politics and knows which side his bread is buttered on. He reminds Claudius the king that he supported his shameful marriage to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, so giving his voice to Claudius becoming king instead of young Hamlet. He successfully holds his own in a court riddled with mistrust. He’s a shrewd, scheming politician, the kind we love to see on our screens — House Of Cards, anyone?
We need to talk about the spying. A lot of it goes on at the court of Elsinore.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are brought over to spy on their friend Hamlet and report back to Claudius. Polonius sets up a situation where he can secretly observe Ophelia and Hamlet. He sends someone to secretly observe Laertes in France, with elaborate instructions to spread rumours about Laertes’ bad behaviour in order to prompt Laertes into, he hopes, denial.
In cahoots with Claudius, Polonius hides behind an arras to eavesdrop on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother…and gets his comeuppance.
Sneaky behaviour in the extreme.We can easily dismiss Polonius’s claims that his behaviour is in his children’s interest. And, of course, it’s nothing like stalking your offspring on Facebook, or scrutinising their social media activity in order to get a handle on their personal lives. As for the time-honoured practice of reading our teenage son’s or daughter’s diary — that’s entirely different, isn’t it? As for asking your student’s roomie to text you if they need to, or plying them with food and drink to loosen their tongue – no, no-one ever does that!
Polonius loves the sound of his own voice, and sometimes loses the thread of what he is saying. He’s a bit of a connoisseur of dramatic performance. He’s like your embarrassing dad or uncle, dominating the conversation, hogging the karaoke machine.
And he loves giving advice. Just before Laertes leaves, Polonius subjects him to a lengthy list of maxims to live by, a father-to-son talk which adds to Polonius’s air of tediousness and sententiousness – but actually, most of what he says is spot-on. He’s not the first parent to recommend behaviour which is conspicuously absent in their own life.
Polonius tells his son:
- ‘Give every man thy ear but few thy voice’.
Listen more than you speak, he says. Hold your tongue. Don’t share your thoughts too readily. Don’t be too quick to give your opinion.
- ‘Do not dull thy palm with entertainment Of each new-hatched unfledged comrade.’
Think twice before buying rounds for the new best friends you met five minutes ago in the bar.
‘Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy…
……rich, not gaudy
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.’
Buy the best quality clothes you can afford, because people will judge you by what you look like.
Polonius actually speaks some sense. He could be a campus advisor for new students.
Two pieces of advice in particular resonate down the centuries. Polonius tells his son ‘To thy own self be true’. This maxim is buried deep in our psyches. Know who you are, be true to your authentic self.
And he talks about the value of true friends. When you find them, he says, ‘Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel’.
For those two observations alone, you might forgive him insisting on yet another soulful rendition of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’
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Novels by Mary Rizza