‘To thine own self be true’ is a well-known proverbial expression which means ‘be true to yourself’ or ‘don’t do anything that would go against your true nature’. But what are the origins of this phrase? To discover those, and why they may come tinged with irony in their original context, we need to turn to the text in which ‘to thine own self be true’ first appears: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It’s worth probing the origins of this phrase because they make more sense when viewed within the context of the longer passage to which they serve as a (kind of) culmination, a summing-up, if you will.
‘To thine own self be true’ is spoken by Polonius, a councillor to the King, Claudius, in Act 1 Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that there isn’t space in this article to list all of the many everyday English expressions and turns of phrase which we owe to Hamlet, but to name just a very few of them, there’s ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘neither a borrower not a lender be’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’, ‘in my mind’s eye’, ‘primrose path’, ‘the lady doth protest too much’, ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’, and ‘method in one’s madness’. And there are lots of others besides.
Anyway, in the scene, Polonius 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 own self 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 that ‘to thine own self be true’ is only the first part of this morsel of advice: we should also wait for the other shoe to drop as Polonius follows this up by saying, essentially, ‘and if you are true to yourself, then it naturally follows that you will be true to others, too.’
This piece of wisdom is borne out by other, similar statements about the value of telling the truth and being true (or trustworthy). In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, for instance, George Bernard Shaw made a slightly different but related point when he asserted that ‘the liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe any one else’. In other words, honest behaviour is important not just because dishonest conduct harms other people, but because it ultimately harms you yourself, because you become convinced that the rest of the world is as unfaithful and as sneaky as you are.
Note the see-saw two-part structure to many of Polonius’ strictures to his son: 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, crowning it all: ‘be true to yourself and you will be true to others’. In other words, there is a shift in this final piece of advice where the pearls of wisdom are linked not by a ‘but’ but by an ‘and’.
Polonius’ advice to his son seems sound enough, but did Shakespeare intend it to be taken at face value?
There are two things to note here. First of all, hardly anything that Polonius says in this long speech to Laertes is original. As R. W. Dent points out in Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language: An Index, ‘every idea in the speech is a commonplace’, even if only a couple of lines closely match the wording of an established proverb. The picture that Shakespeare portrays is of a father fussing over his son and giving him the typical platitudinous advice that parents always give to their children when they’re leaving home. If Polonius had actually come out with anything notable or striking at this moment, the comic effect would have been marred.
The second point to note is that Polonius will prove himself to be a hypocrite: in the course of the play, he certainly will ‘be false’ to other men. He spies on Hamlet, using his own daughter, Ophelia, as a pawn to elicit information about Hamlet’s state of mind. And then, in a later scene, he conceals himself behind the arras in Gertrude’s bedchamber so he can hear the conversation between Hamlet and his mother. This act of eavesdropping will get him killed, when Hamlet – thinking it’s Claudius behind the hanging – stabs the hapless fool.
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 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’? This is certainly how the character is usually played, and some productions make it clear that Laertes himself isn’t really attending to this paternal advice.
Polonius is 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, 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 when he tells Laertes, ‘to thine own self be true’, he is not being true to his son or to himself.