By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Polonius is a fool and a windbag. But he’s also a schemer and an important member of the royal court of Elsinore. In these two sentences, we have the key to the character of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Like Hamlet with his feigned madness (and his very real mental and emotional affliction, occasioned by his father’s death – which he later finds out was murder – and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius), Polonius is playing a part, at least in part.
We cannot be entirely sure how much of his long-windedness is affectation to conceal his more cunning plotting behind the scenes.
Indeed, he is literally ‘behind the scenes’, enacting one of his cunning plans, when Hamlet stabs him: he has concealed himself behind the arras (or tapestry) to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother, Gertrude. It is this act of devious underhandedness which leads to Polonius’ death.
In many ways, for all of their superficial differences, Polonius and Hamlet are not that different. They both devise plans to deceive others, in order to investigate something; they both mistreat Ophelia, using her as a pawn in their deceptions; they both like talking as much as acting; and on the subject of ‘acting’ – a loaded word in relation to this play – they both have theatrical inclinations.
Polonius tells Hamlet that he acted when he was a student at university, and ‘was accounted a good actor’ (III.2). Some of Hamlet’s funniest scenes are when he is deceiving Polonius with his ‘mad’ talk, and trying to convince the old lord that he is mad (and Polonius is naïve enough to fall for the ruse, wrongly and perhaps arrogantly believing his own daughter, Ophelia, is responsible for making Hamlet mad with love for her).
And Polonius is also a key part of the play’s comic relief. He is a fool, but he is not the Fool – the ‘Fool’ or Clown character in many of Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps most famously King Lear, who speaks in riddles in order to expose the truth. Polonius is too unimaginative to see the truth.
Some of the most famous lines from the play – ‘To thine own self be true’ and ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ – are often quoted approvingly by people as genuine advice, people who often don’t realise that Shakespeare gives these sentiments to a pompous buffoon with little self-awareness, who can happily criticise the Players for performing speeches that are ‘too long’ while he himself cheerfully prattles on.
He is the character who proclaims, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’, but in being about as brief as a Wagner opera, inadvertently reveals himself to be signally lacking in wit.