There are differing views on Polonius, both within the play and from critics:

  • Is he simply a ‘tedious old fool'?
  • Is he a shrewd statesman with considerable power in Denmark?
  • Is he perhaps both?

Initial impressions

We first meet him in Act I scene ii, when he agrees to let Laertes return to Paris:

  • He seems a kind and considerate father, who, in just four lines, conveys to us that he does not wish to lose his son but is willing to grant his request, if the king agrees.
  • Yet we see him as representative of those whose ‘better wisdoms' have raised no opposition to Claudius' ‘o'er-hasty' marriage to Gertrude, and the acceptance of Claudius as king rather than Young Hamlet.

More on the political role of Polonius: Hamlet in Act V scene ii, speaks of Claudius as ‘(popping) in between th'election and my hopes'. The system in Denmark seen in the play is that which pertained in England at the time of the Norman Conquest, and both earlier and later in other European countries:

- The eldest son of the King, while a prime contender, was not automatically heir
- Other nobles could be appointed as King, based on the election of the court.

Polonius has clearly supported Claudius as the next monarch instead of Prince Hamlet.
Hamlet himself gives his vote — his ‘voice' — as he dies to Fortinbras.

Shakespeare shows the same system in Macbeth, where, by appointing Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, Duncan is indicating that he is the heir the King prefers. Before that, Macbeth himself had hopes that, as a national hero, he might be nominated instead.

Parental authority

The next time we meet Polonius, he gives a long speech of advice to Laertes. It is long-winded, but excellent advice. His final comment —

‘This above all, to thine own self be true'

— has become generally received and often-quoted wisdom.

He is a man who expects to be obeyed. He commands Ophelia to keep herself away from Hamlet. Polonius sees Hamlet's courtship of his daughter as a seducer's trap — ‘springes to catch woodcocks'.

More on irony of this image: Ironically, Laertes uses this image about his own situation as he lies dying.

Mean minded?

  • Shakespeare wishes to show us Polonius as a man of narrower and meaner nature. We see:
  • Polonius' suspicious nature
  • His scornful dismissal of the idea of Hamlet's loving Ophelia, especially his use of the image of money and bartering — ‘Think yourself a baby / That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay'
  • His order to Ophelia that she must not believe Hamlet's vows, and must not ‘give words or talk' with him, is abrupt and firm
  • At his next appearance he has no scruple in sending his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris
  • He expects very different standards of his son from the behaviour demanded of his daughter (which would, to some extent at least, reflect the dual standards of Elizabethan audiences)
  • It is unpleasant to hear his contrivances for finding out about Laertes' activities
  • Polonius appears to have no scruples about this, nor to feel that ‘drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling and drabbing' are dishonourable
  • The audience sees that Reynaldo appears to have higher standards than Polonius.

Man of substance?

  • In Act II scene I, Shakespeare makes it quite clear that Polonius' speech often rambles. He repeats himself on occasion and at one point completely loses the thread of his argument: ‘What was I about to say? By the mass, I was about to say something.'
  • This is the same rather senile-sounding old man whom Hamlet so easily fools and satirises in Act II scene ii
  • He is equally tedious and long-winded — Gertrude even intervenes tartly to demand ‘More matter with less art' at the beginning of Act II scene ii.

However, he is also seen as a significantly important and influential councillor:

  • informing the king of the return of the ambassadors
  • being complimented by Claudius as ‘a man faithful and honourable'
  • Polonius himself obviously feels that he is a power within the court asking:
‘Hath there been a time — I would fain know that —
That I have positively said ‘ ‘Tis so',
When it proved otherwise?'

Claudius replies, ‘Not that I know' (though this could be said in a sarcastic voice).

Shakespeare does not resolve these different possible views of Polonius, nor reveal to us whether he was equally important when Old Hamlet was ruling. Is Shakespeare suggesting Polonius has been advanced by Claudius as a reward for supporting Claudius' claim to the throne? There is no textual evidence either way. Certainly Hamlet never voices such a suspicion, though he is clearly scornful of him as a ‘tedious old fool'.

Polonius' end

The unpleasant side of Polonius is brought to our notice in his final actions and his death. His agreement with Claudius that they are ‘lawful espials' upon Hamlet and his willingness to ‘loose' Ophelia as part of a trap, show us his dubious sense of morality. His realisation that giving Ophelia a prayer book to read is hypocritical does nothing to alleviate this, since it does not change his actions.

When Polonius is killed, there is to a certain extent a sense that he deserves what he gets:

  • It is he who has suggested hiding in Gertrude's closet
  • He has insisted that he is right in his diagnosis of Hamlet
  • His response to his daughter in Act III scene i is singularly unsympathetic:
‘It shall do well. But yet I do believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love. How now, Ophelia
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said,
We heard it all …
Let his queen-mother all alone entreat him
To show his grief, let her be round with him,
And I'll be plac'd, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference.'

Shakespeare makes certain that we have little sympathy for ‘the good old man', as Gertrude calls him after his death, since Polonius' final words (apart from his cry in Gertrude's closet) are those of a spy and a flatterer. Although Polonius had suggested the stratagem, he attributes it to Claudius:

‘My lord, he's going to his mother's closet.
Behind the arras I'll convey myself
To hear the process. I'll warrant she'll tax him home,
And as you said — and wisely was it said —
'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
The speech of vantage.'

Elsewhere in Hamlet, and especially in the immediately following soliloquy of Claudius, we are made acutely aware of the importance of dying in a state of grace. The audience knows that this is not likely to be the case for Polonius.

Beyond the grave

Once he is dead Polonius does not disappear from the play. In many ways, he becomes more significant:

  • First, his corpse leads Hamlet to discuss in detail with Claudius the mortality and bodily (and spiritual) corruption of all mankind: ‘A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him.'
  • Even more importantly, Polonius is now a murdered father, and his son, who has vanished from the action after Act I scene iii, returns as an avenger, to be set beside Hamlet in the audience's awareness of the problem of revenge
  • We hear that Polonius has been buried ‘in hugger-mugger' — that is, in secrecy; but he is not forgotten by Ophelia, who, far from resenting his interference in her love for Hamlet, shows in her madness a deep and tender grief:
(Sings) ‘They bore him bare-fac'd on the bier,
And in his grave rain'd many a tear'…
‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.'

We may never decide quite how we view Polonius, and he can be portrayed very differently in theatrical productions, but this must be due to the various and sometimes contradictory possibilities with which Shakespeare presents us in his characterisation of Polonius.

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