Polonius, a secondary character in Hamlet, is a good example of the difference between a Shakespeare text as ‘literature’ that can be individually read and a Shakespeare text that is meant to be performed on the stage. He can be played by an actor as an elder statesman, somewhat faded but still wise and capable, or he can be presented as silly, self-absorbed and self-serving, and a buffoon. Played for the potential humour in the text, with the emphasis on his long-windedness and sycophantic behaviour, he is hilarious. The conversations between Polonius and Hamlet can make the play almost comic. In those scenes Polonius comes across as ridiculous, whereas Shakespeare also uses those conversations to bring out the sense of humour that Hamlet reveals in his interaction with Polonius, indicating the kind of person Hamlet is, or would be if he hadn’t found himself in the situation that is the subject of the play. (Not sure what happens in Hamlet? Read our 5 minute summary.)
Polonius is also an example of the genius of Shakespeare’s stagecraft – in this case one of the ways in which he can cram a universe of substance into a three hour performance. Shakespeare has created a single character who fulfils several roles – roles that are usually played by several minor characters. He is, at the same time, the wise old man, the scapegoat, the fool, the politician. A major dramatic device, he is essential to the development of the play’s plot, driving it throughout most of the text. In that, he is an important dimension to the characterisation of Hamlet, and the themes Shakespeare conveys through the text.
However Polonius is portrayed on the stage, he is thoroughly nasty. His daughter, Ophelia, commits suicide under the extreme pressure placed on her by three powerful men – Claudius, Hamlet and Polonius, led by Polonius, who uses her as bait to prove his theory about Hamlet’s madness. His instructions to Reynaldo about spying on his son, Laertes, reveals his deviousness, and his easy acceptance of a little whoring by his son exposes his moral limitations.
Polonius dies as he is hiding behind a curtain in Gertrude’s bedroom, spying on a private conversation between her and her son, who hears him and stabs him. We don’t feel sorry for him as it is very much just deserts for his nasty habit of spying on everyone, and also his other unpleasant activities like sucking up to the king and using his children as part of his political manipulations.
Top Polonius Quotes
It’s notable that Shakespeare has given Polonius several of the lines that have become top Shakespeare quotes, such as:
To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans’t not then be false to any man
Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry
The apparel oft proclaims the man
Brevity is the soul of wit
Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t
This is the very ecstasy of love
Other English sayings like “clothes make the man” and “old friends are the best friends” are paraphrasings of Polonius’ lines. It’s interesting that those quotes have become the epitome of wisdom, considering that they come from someone who is in many ways a meddling, insincere, foolish old man. A complex character indeed.