‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a line from Act 1 Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet.
It is spoken in a speech by Polonius, King Claudius’ chief minister. His son, Laertes is leaving for university in Paris. Laertes and his sister, Ophelia, are waiting for him at the harbour. He arrives, and delivers a speech, in which he gives his son his blessing and offers him advice about how to conduct himself.
It is the speech that probably has the most quoted phrases in all of Shakespeare’s speeches. Wise phrases such as ‘Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,’ ‘to thine own self be true,’ and ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’ fill the speech. The last piece of advice in his speech is is ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’:
There, my blessing with thee
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look 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 unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear ’t that th’ opposèd 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 expressed 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 own self 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.
This advice is thought of as good advice and that’s why its elements are so often quoted. After all, what could be more sound advice than that which advises one not to borrow or lend money? If you avoid lending or borrowing money you are more likely to keep your friends.
What makes this advice and this speech so interesting is not its content, although that is very interesting, but that, coming from Polonius, it is problematic. In the first place, Polonius is a bore, and that often quoted advice is probably not even being heard by his children as they know how he goes on about everything, so, Polonius’ advice to Laertes not to give his thoughts a tongue is laughable.
Polonius is a most unpleasant man. Immediately after this, he talks to someone he has employed to go to Paris, spy on Laertes, where he is a student, and report back to him. Polonius not only spies on his daughter as well, but sets her up for entrapment. He also treats her in a dictatorial way, interfering with her romantic life, thus contributing to her suicide.
Polonius meets a sticky end while spying on Hamlet in a confidential conversation with his mother. Hamlet hears someone hiding behind a curtain and stabs whoever it is. It turns out to be Polonius.
Polonius’ advice is pompous, hypocritical and empty. This is a tribute to Shakespeare in that he can produce a speech that has been quoted for four hundred years as definitive wisdom about human behaviour while it comes from a character who is a disreputable and hypocritical empty vessel.
In all of his works Shakespeare never tells us what he personally thinks about things. His characters’ opinions range around the whole spectrum of what human beings think and believe. So we don’t really know whether Shakespeare approved of borrowing and lending money. Polonius’ disapproval is part of the portrayal of one of his characters, Polonius.
Other money mentions in Shakespeare
Questions of money and its value appear frequently among Shakespeare’s characters:
“I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse: borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable”
The response from the judge is:
“Not a penny, not a penny: you are two impatient to bear crosses.”
Shakespeare understood how borrowing to pay one’s debts just sinks one deeper and deeper into debt and there’s no release once it begins to go that way. Falstaff and the judge both understand that too.
In Othello, Iago cons money out of the wealthy Roderigo. Roderigo has tried to court Desdemona and has been rebuffed by her father. She is in love with Othello and has married him and gone with him to Cyprus where the Venetian army is based. Iago tells Roderigo that their love can’t last and that he should go to Cyprus too. Roderigo does so and becomes frustrated by the lack of progress, considering that he is paying Iago for that service. Iago tells him to get more money because it’s going to work. He tells Roderigo.
“Put money in thy purse,”
He repeats it over and over again. It does not work out for Roderigo and it never could have. It was all a con.
In As You Like It the poor shepherd, Corin, says
“He that wants money, means, and content, is without three good friends.”
He is saying that money isn’t the most important thing in life: happiness and work are just as important. Shakespeare, himself, had all that.