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Character Analysis Polonius Essay Research Paper

Hamlet is the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays for theater audiences and readers. It has been acted live in countries throughout the world and has been translated into every language. Polonius is one of the major characters in Hamlet, his role in the play is of great interest to scholars. Parts of Hamlet present Polonius as a fool, whose love of his own voice leads to his constant babbling. Scholars have been analyzing the character of Polonius for centuries, and his role in Hamlet will continue to be analyzed for centuries to come. Scholars believe that Shakespeare created Polonius as a fool because of his foolish dialogue throughout the play. Polonius granted Laertes permission to go back to school in France. While saying good-bye in his chambers, Polonius tells his son: Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in, Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. Give every man they ear, but few thy voice. Take each man’s censure, but reserve they 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 or 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. (1. 3. 71-87) The advice that Polonius gives to Laertes is simple and sounds foolish being told to a person of Laertes’ age. Martin Orkin comments on the nature of Polonius’ speech: 2 “Shakespeare’s first audience would recognize in Polonius’ predilection for such commonplace expressions of worldly wisdom a mind that runs along conventional tracks, sticking only to what is practically useful in terms of worldly self-advancement” (Orkin 179). Polonius gives Laertes simple advice, to keep his thoughts to himself and to never lend or borrow money. While this advice is simple, when looked at in full context his advice to his son is all about self-advancement. Polonius will go to all extremes to protect his reputation. Grebanier states on the foolishness of Polonius’ speech: “Such guidance will do for those who wish to make the world their prey, but it is dignified by no humanity. Who can live humanly without ever borrowing or lending? Is one to turn his back on his best friend in an hour of need?” (Grebanier 285).

Scholars believe that the advice Polonius gives to his son is simple, an when looked at in full context, is foolish and selfish. After Laertes returns to Paris, Polonius send his servant Reynaldo to Paris to spy on Laertes and question his acquaintances. Polonius says to Reynaldo: At “closes in the consequence”-ay, marry- He closes thus: “I know the gentleman. I saw him yesterday,” or “th’ other day” (Or then, or then, with such or such), “and as you say, There was he 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 take 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. (2. 1. 61-75) 3 By spying on Laertes, Polonius is showing the audience and the reader, that he does now trust him. After giving Laertes a speech on how to behave, Polonius still feels that he has to spy on his son. Joan Hartwig comments on Polonius’ plan to spy on his son: “A machiavellian schemer who takes his plotting to absurd proportions, Polonius pursues ‘indirection’ for its own sake. His efforts to discover Laertes’ reputation in Paris assume that Laertes will not follow his earlier advice; thus, the later words become a comic reduction of his previous sermon to his son” (Hartwig 218). Another reason for Polonius’ foolishness is that Polonius is convinced, and tries convincing others, that the reason for Hamlet’s madness is his love for Ophelia. He tells Ophelia: Come, go with me. I will go seek the king. This is the very ecstasy love, Whose violent property fordoes itself And leads the will to desperate undertakings As oft as any passions under heaven That does afflict out natures. I am sorry. What, have you given him any hard words of late? (2. 1. 113-119) After hearing of Hamlet’s madness, he immediately reaches a conclusion and believes, throughout the play, that he is correct. He does not consider other possibilities and foolishly jumps to the conclusion that Hamlet is mad for Ophelia’s love. R.S. White believes that Polonius should have considered other options for Hamlet’s madness: “But when saying that it is simply Ophelia’s rejection that has made Hamlet mad, he is ignorant of the predisposed mental state of the young man caused by his mother’s remarriage, the recent encounter with the ghost and the whole repressive machinery of Denmark’s social 4 and political life” (White 67).

Polonius foolishly believes that he knows what underlies Hamlet’s madness; while Hamlet, and the audience, knows that he is wrong. Polonius continues to demonstrate his foolishness by babbling and losing his train of argumentation when speaking to the King and Queen. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is mad in love for Ophelia and says: My liege, and madam, to expostulate What majesty should be, what duty is, Why day is day, night night, and time is time Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time. Therefore, (since) brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. ‘Mad’ call I it, for, to define true madness, What is ‘t but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go. (2. 2. 93-102) He says that he will be brief, but continues to babble. The Queen responds to his statement by saying “More matter with less art” (2. 2. 103). The Queen acknowledges Polonius’ constant babbling and wants him to get quickly to the point. Grebanier comments on the character of Polonius: “Nothing is left of is ability and shrewdness but a few tags, a few catch-phrases, to which, even when they do express some grains of truth, he pays scant heed in his own demeanor. It is he, for example, who utters the celebrated: ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (2. 2. 90) -a profound truth; but no character in Shakespeare is so long winded as Polonius” (Grebanier 283). Polonius continues to complicate a simple statement and is viewed as a babbling fool by scholars. Throughout the play, Hamlet continues to insult Polonius and make him look foolish to the audience. Hamlet tells Polonius: “You are a fishmonger” (2. 2. 190). 5 According to Leo Kirschbaum: “A fishmonger is a barrel, one who employs a prostitute for his business. Hamlet is obliquely telling the old councilor that he is using his own daughter for evil ends” (Kirschbaum 86). After Hamlet insults Polonius and Ophelia, Polonius still refuses to give up this theory that Hamlet is madly in love. Martin Dodsworth comments on the reaction of Polonius after Hamlet insults him: “Polonius accepts the bad treatment meeted out to him as that of a man who is out of his mind: ‘How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. He is far gone’” (Dodsworth 100).

The Shakespearean audience viewed Hamlet as the protagonist of the play, and some scholars believe that Polonius served as his perfect foil. Bert States comments, “Polonius is not only the perfect foil for Hamlet’s wit (since irony is the mortal enemy of the order prone mind), but a shadow of Hamlet as well. Indeed, Polonius literally shadows Hamlet, or tails him and in shadowing him falls into a thematic parody of his own habits” (States 116). Thus, Polonius’ role in the play as Hamlet’s foil would be the role of the fool. The last time Polonius appears in Hamlet is when he hides behind a curtain in Gertrude’s room, to hear Hamlet’s conversation with his mother. Hamlet frightens Gertrude and she cries for help. Immediately after, Polonius foolishly echoes her cry and is stabbed by Hamlet, thinking it is Claudius. Hamlet, realizing he has killed Polonius says: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for my better. (3. 4. 38-39) Elizabeth Oakes comments on this scene, “Although Polonius is not in motley, Hamlet calls him a fool often enough, although nowhere more significantly than in the closet scene 6 after the murder” (Oakes 106). Hamlet ruthlessly calls Polonius a fool, and his opinion, as the play’s protagonist, would greatly influence an Elizabethan audience’s view of Polonius. When Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius’ death, Claudius responds by saying: O heavy deed! It had been so with us, had we been there. (4. 1. 13-14) Claudius knows that Polonius has been killed in his place. Oakes comments on Polonius’ role a the plays fool: “He is suited for this role because of his incarnation of the fool, the one traditionally chosen as a substitute for the king in ritual” (Oakes 106). Scholars view Polonius as a character mocked throughout the play and the nature of his death, as the Kings substitute, lead scholars to view him as a fool. In conclusion, Shakespeare created Polonius as a very unique and complex character. Scholars argue and will continue to argue over the reasons for Polonius’ foolishness. Throughout the play Polonius tends to act foolish thinking that he knows the reason for Hamlet’s madness, while the audience knows that he is wrong. Shakespeare created Polonius as a controversial character and only he will ever know why Polonius was created so foolish.

Works Cited

Grebanier, Bernard. The Heart of Hamlet. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co, 1960. Hartwig, Joan. “Parodic Polonius”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language: vol. 13, 1971. Kirschbaum, Leo. Character and Characterization in Shakespeare. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1962. Oakes, Elizabeth. “Polonius, the Man behind the Arras: A Jungian Study.” New Essays on Hamlet. New York: AMS Press, 1994. Orkin, Martin. “Hamlet and the Security of the South African State.” Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. New York: G.K. Hall and Co, 1995. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington Square Press published by Pocket Books, 1992. States, Bert O. Hamlet and the Concept of Character. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1992.


1. Introduction

2. Polonius´s principles

3. Hamlet´s judgement

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The role of Polonius is a comparatively short one, since he is killed in the third act and thus does not appear in the last two acts. And although his death exerts a decisive influence on the further plot of the play, the consequences of his death are not really part of his role, they rather relate to and depend on Ophelia´s and Laertes´s reactions to his being killed. That might explain why many critical studies of Hamlet seem to neglect Polonius or at least are far from giving a full portray of this character. However, it is remarkable that Polonius appears in all the scenes of the second and the third acts and also in the scenes 2 and 3 of the first act. And the fact that his entrances are so frequent indicates a certain importance. So what can be said about this character?

2. Polonius´s principles

Polonius calls himself an `assistant for a state´ [II.ii.168]. And he has indeed the function of a counsellor at the court of Claudius, which is among others shown by his again and again giving Claudius advice concerning Hamlet. Polonius´s first longer speech can be found in act 1, scene 3, when he tells Laertes to keep to certain principles. In fact Polonius tells his son about nine different precepts, which all must be regarded as commonplaces. The most general precept is certainly his demand `to thy own self be true´ [I.iii.78]. Commonplaces and generalizations are obviously important criteria for Polonius´s judgements; he needs them to understand the world that surrounds him and to orientate himself.

When Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet´s love for her, he resorts to a generalization in order to convince her of the falseness of Hamlet´s vows: `I do know when the blood burns how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows´ [I.iii.115-117.]. Furthermore Polonius says that `wanton, wild and usual slips are […] companions noted and most known to youth and liberty´ [II.i.23]. That is why he does not trust his son, but orders his servant to observe Laertes. Another generalization or saying of Polonius´s is: `´Tis much proved that with devotion´s visage and pious action we do sugar o´er the devil himself´ [III.i.49-51.]. `I do know´, `most known´, `much proved´ – in fact Polonius does not know what is going on at court. His common sense seems to have been replaced by commonplaces and proverbs. And general conceptions constitute his knowledge. This reveals a kind of superficiality which can also be noticed by the fact that the outer appearance of people is very important for Polonius: `… the apparel oft proclaims the man´ [I.iii.72]. Moreover he esteems obedience and honour, which are again very general terms. And of course his behaviour towards Claudius and Gertrude shows a lot of obedience and also obsequiousness.[1] On the other hand he is anxious to be considered as a good adviser and he is afraid of his honour and reputation being damaged.[2] The latter is a reason for his unwillingness to support a relationship between Hamlet and his daughter.

But what are the reasons for Polonius´s applying general concepts to everything? Is it only because he has become old and needs now some general patterns to cope with difficult situations? Or does it have its roots in his character?

We can assume that Polonius´s general concepts consist of and derive from the experience he has gained in the course of his life. The significance of his own experience becomes clear, when he says that he `suffered much extremity for love´ [II.ii.192] in his youth. His own experience makes him assume that Hamlet is mad with love. And of course his way of spying on his son reveals a great deal of cunning. In this respect he is not superficial or naïve at all, but very experienced. It is also his experience which makes him act in a way that can by no means be called honest: `Your bait of Falsehood takes this carp of truth´ [II.i.62]. He spies on Laertes as well as on Ophelia; he hides behind curtains; and he obviously lies, when he tells the king and the queen that it was his modesty which caused his objection to a relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Therefore it is well-founded that Hamlet accuses Polonius of being not honest [II.ii.178]; and the queen asks him to be less artful [II.ii.97]. As for Polonius´s being suspicious of his children it must not be forgotten that old people are said to mistrust everybody, which of course is also a generalization.


[1] Uwe Baumann points out that Polonius already worked for Hamlet´s father and that his opportunistic behaviour stands for a corrupt political system which has long since come into being. Cf. Uwe Baumann (1998), Shakespeare und seine Zeit, Klett, Stuttgart, p. 90.

[2] According to Bert O. States it is `Polonius´s zeal of office that brings everyone down´. Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (1992), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 114.

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