Poor Polonius. He gets a bad rap. Grant you, I’m playing him, and I have a tendency, even when I know better, to side with my characters. I think most actors do this, but I’m not sure. Some folks think it’s necessary if you’re going to do good work. I’m not sure about that, either. If the audience believes the actor, the actor’s done their job. But none of that is the point. The point is, Polonius, in particular, is usually maligned.
People don’t like Polonius. They like Hamlet. Sure, Hamlet’s young, rich, broody, good-looking, smart, deep, wears all black and is – ahem – adept at swordplay, but other than that what’s he got? Meanwhile, all poor, beleaguered, misunderstood Polonius does is his job — and love his kids. And for that, he gets four hundred years of scorn and derision heaped upon his head, all salt in the wound after being ignominiously murdered – by accident. I ask you, how is this fair?
In case you’re not familiar with Hamlet, know that it’s a revenge tragedy and was written at a time when revenge tragedies were as popular and common as slasher films are today – and their body counts were pretty comparable, as well. Frankly, revenge tragedies probably beat out most slasher films both in sheer numbers and in creative imaginings of hideous, painful deaths. If you saw Portland Playhouse’s production of Titus Andronicus earlier this year, you have some idea of what I mean. (What if, four hundred years from now, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is looked upon with the same reverence as Shakespeare’s magnum opus is seen today? Would serve us right.)
In Hamlet, the young prince comes back home from college because his father – also named Hamlet, and the king of Denmark – has died. To maintain order and assure an easy transition of power – and I guess also because she thinks he’s hot – the queen, Gertrude, has married Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. National stability be damned, Hamlet’s not happy about this; and lo and behold, his father’s ghost comes along to tell him he shouldn’t be happy about it, because in fact, Claudius assassinated father Hamlet in order to seize power. Once Hamlet finds this out, the rest of the play is him seeking revenge for his father’s murder.
Okay, fair enough. Now, Polonius serves as kind of grand vizier, the chief counsellor to Claudius. BUT he also filled the same position for King Hamlet (Hamlet’s father). As right-hand man to the throne, all Polonius knows is that the king has died, long live the king, national stability must be maintained. It’s his job to be the glue that holds the kingdom – suddenly, unfortunately and surprisingly, sans king – together. Claudius being the next and best answer, as far as he knows, he throws his support, wisdom, and experience behind the new king, because he has to, for the sake of the nation.
Nowhere in this narrative is there any indication that Polonius knew anything about Claudius’s dastardly plot. There’s no instance of shared evil. They never discuss the murder of King Hamlet. When Hamlet starts acting like a weirdo, Polonius never has an “Oh shit! He’s on to us!” moment with Claudius. Heck, he’s completely wrong about what’s going on with Hamlet, and thinks the young prince is acting so strangely because he’s lovestruck for his daughter, Ophelia. Misguided, yes. Worthy of murder and ridicule? Seems a tad harsh.
And what is Hamlet’s beef with Polonius? I never understand it. It’s just kind of, “Because.” Presumably, Hamlet’s known Polonius his entire life, so maybe he’s resented the counsellor for some previous slight, but we don’t know that from the script. Further, when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, he goes through the details of his murder and never names Polonius once. So, all this vitriol is because he thinks Polonius talks a lot?
Holy smokes, Hamlet doesn’t like someone else because they talk a lot? The sheer nerve is truly breathtaking.
In one of their more involved exchanges, Hamlet implies that it’s too bad Polonius isn’t as honest as a fishmonger. Now, he says this while he himself is pretending to be insane. Project much, bruh? Later on, in an exchange with Polonius, Hamlet spots a cloud and says it looks like a camel, a weasel and then a whale. Polonius goes along with each one. This passage is supposed to show how clever and insightful Hamlet is and how he sees through the foolish, mendacious, Polonius. But what is the counsellor supposed to do? Argue with him? About what he sees in the clouds? In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom argues that no one can withstand Hamlet’s “brilliant mockery.” If this scene is an example, give me a break.
Polonius doesn’t particularly care for the relationship that Hamlet is having with his daughter. Why? Because Hamlet is royal, first of all, and unpredictable and dangerous. And boy, if there’s one thing the rest of the play shows us, it’s that Polonius was right. By the end of the play, Hamlet is either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of seven people. For those keeping score at home, that’s a higher body count than the Son of Sam.
And all the advice Polonius gives Ophelia regarding Hamlet is good advice. Hamlet is, after all, a prince in a mood. He acts without care or recognition about what might happen to the little people in his broody wake. There’s no way to hold him accountable. Even when he kills Polonius, there’s never any question of Hamlet having to, say, do time for his crime. Hamlet is always behaving with an assumption that he’s above the law. That’s definitely somebody to be wary of.
Polonius has good advice for his son, Laertes, as well. Great advice, in fact. And many of his lines are some of the most famous lines in the English language:
“Look thou character: give thy thoughts no tongue
Nor any unproportioned thought to 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 courage. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel but, being in,
Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgement. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy
But not expressed in fancy – rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
Neither a borrower nor a lender, be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend
And borrowing dulleth th’edge of husbandry.
This above all, to thine own self be true
And it must follow as night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
This is less a speech than it is a series of axioms, but it’s all solid, I’d say. Yet Wikipedia calls the passage “sententious” (given to moralizing in a pompous or affected manner”: I looked it up). And famed Shakespearean scholar David Bevington, whose name you can find on any number of books concerning the Bard, said in his The Complete Works of Shakespeare that Polonius’s “famous advice to his son, often quoted out of context as though it were wise counsel, is in fact a worldly gospel of self-interest and concern for appearances.” Excuse me? Which part? “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”? “To thine own self be true”? “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice” (a lesson I need to learn myself)? This is all dead-on, I think most people would agree. We still hear variations today even of the part about how one should dress, offered as wisdom: “The clothes make the man.” “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” We never hear about the mom in the situation. Polonius is a father alone, doing the best he can.
Even Polonius’s penchant for intrigue, I’d argue, is his job. I don’t think he just started keeping tabs on the court when the play starts. And if he did less than that, he’d be fired. Or worse. The way I see it, it’s completely in his purview to know at all times what is going on everywhere in the kingdom. When the king, be it Daddy Hamlet or Claudius or whoever, has a question, Polonius had better have an answer.
But Hamlet’s the hero. So everybody likes Hamlet. Polonius – who doesn’t even wish Hamlet harm; he’s just trying to figure out what’s going on with the whiny prince – is Hamlet’s punching bag, or rather, his pin cushion, whatever, throughout eternity. If there’s any justice in this old world, and lord knows there ain’t much, maybe one day somebody will write The Tragedy of Polonius. But I doubt it.
Now, on the flip side is Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, who gives drugs to an adolescent girl, tells her parents to stop crying when they think she’s dead, is inadvertently responsible for the deaths of three young people, abandons Juliet when the authorities are on their way, then when forced to admit his involvement in all the shenanigans, somehow finds room in his heart to shift blame to the teenagers – and it works! And most people remember him as a good guy! But that story’s a whole new 1,500 words.
- Salt and Sage’s Hamlet continues through Saturday, Aug. 27, at Shaking the Tree, in repertory with Romeo and Juliet. Details here.