The Meaning and Origins of ‘Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be’?

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a well-known proverbial expression which means ‘do not borrow anything from anyone, and don’t lend anyone anything either’. But should such a sentiment be taken seriously? Or should we take the expression, and the sentiment it expresses, with a pinch of the (proverbial) salt?

Let’s take a closer look at the origins of ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ in one of the greatest works of English literature: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a line uttered by Polonius, a councillor to the King, Claudius, in Act 1 Scene 3 of the play. He is bidding farewell to his son, Laertes, who is leaving Denmark for France. Polonius, like any concerned parent, gives his son some advice before the young man leaves home:

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 express’d 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 ownself 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!

Note the see-saw two-part structure to many of these nuggets of paternal advice: listen to everyone … but keep quiet yourself in most situations; let other people tell you off … but resist the urge to judge others; wear clothes that are expensive-looking … but not too ostentatious.

And then, one of the most famous pearls of wisdom among a veritable necklace of the stuff: ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’. Don’t borrow money from someone, but don’t lend money to someone else, either.

Why? Because often when you lend a friend money, they don’t ever pay it back, and as a result you fall out with them (‘For loan oft loses both itself and friend’). So you shouldn’t lend money. And you shouldn’t borrow it from others, because this undermines your ability to keep your household in order and balance the account-books (‘And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry’).

‘Husbandry’ here doesn’t mean spousal duties specifically, but keeping one’s house (the ‘hus’ of ‘husband’), especially in economic terms. Of course, traditionally the responsibility for ensuring that all household bills were paid and generally managing the finances fell to the man of the house, hence ‘husband’.

Indeed, the word ‘economy’ is itself ultimately derived from the Greek meaning ‘house management’, showing how the home and money were often closely intertwined (and highlighting that ‘home economics’ is, from an etymological perspective, something of a tautology).

Polonius’ advice to his son seems sound enough, but did Shakespeare intend it to be taken at face value?

Polonius’ role in Hamlet is sometimes described as ‘Lord Chamberlain’. It is thought that the actor John Heminges was the first to play the role of Polonius in the play’s original production in late-Elizabethan England, in around 1601. Heminges, along with Henry Condell, would compile and publish the famous First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, after the Bard’s death.

Traditionally, in theatre companies the roles of Polonius and the Gravedigger (from the famous ‘Yorick’ scene) have been taken by the same actor, because by the time the Gravedigger comes into the play, Polonius (spoiler alert) has been dispatched by Hamlet after the Prince mistook Polonius for Claudius behind the arras and stabbed him.

Given the Gravedigger is an unquestionably comic role in the play, does this mean Heminges was a comic actor, and Polonius a character designed to be played ‘for laughs’?

Polonius may be Lord Chamberlain and a councillor to the King of Denmark, but he is nevertheless a fool and a windbag who will never use one word when five might suffice. 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.

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 an affectation to conceal his more cunning plotting behind the scenes.

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.

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’, then, can be interpreted both as sound advice and as overly cautious nonsense from a character well-known for liking the sound of his own voice.

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