Polonius Essay


1. Introduction

2. Polonius´s principles

3. Hamlet´s judgement

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The role of Polonius is a comparatively short one, since he is killed in the third act and thus does not appear in the last two acts. And although his death exerts a decisive influence on the further plot of the play, the consequences of his death are not really part of his role, they rather relate to and depend on Ophelia´s and Laertes´s reactions to his being killed. That might explain why many critical studies of Hamlet seem to neglect Polonius or at least are far from giving a full portray of this character. However, it is remarkable that Polonius appears in all the scenes of the second and the third acts and also in the scenes 2 and 3 of the first act. And the fact that his entrances are so frequent indicates a certain importance. So what can be said about this character?

2. Polonius´s principles

Polonius calls himself an `assistant for a state´ [II.ii.168]. And he has indeed the function of a counsellor at the court of Claudius, which is among others shown by his again and again giving Claudius advice concerning Hamlet. Polonius´s first longer speech can be found in act 1, scene 3, when he tells Laertes to keep to certain principles. In fact Polonius tells his son about nine different precepts, which all must be regarded as commonplaces. The most general precept is certainly his demand `to thy own self be true´ [I.iii.78]. Commonplaces and generalizations are obviously important criteria for Polonius´s judgements; he needs them to understand the world that surrounds him and to orientate himself.

When Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet´s love for her, he resorts to a generalization in order to convince her of the falseness of Hamlet´s vows: `I do know when the blood burns how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows´ [I.iii.115-117.]. Furthermore Polonius says that `wanton, wild and usual slips are […] companions noted and most known to youth and liberty´ [II.i.23]. That is why he does not trust his son, but orders his servant to observe Laertes. Another generalization or saying of Polonius´s is: `´Tis much proved that with devotion´s visage and pious action we do sugar o´er the devil himself´ [III.i.49-51.]. `I do know´, `most known´, `much proved´ – in fact Polonius does not know what is going on at court. His common sense seems to have been replaced by commonplaces and proverbs. And general conceptions constitute his knowledge. This reveals a kind of superficiality which can also be noticed by the fact that the outer appearance of people is very important for Polonius: `… the apparel oft proclaims the man´ [I.iii.72]. Moreover he esteems obedience and honour, which are again very general terms. And of course his behaviour towards Claudius and Gertrude shows a lot of obedience and also obsequiousness.[1] On the other hand he is anxious to be considered as a good adviser and he is afraid of his honour and reputation being damaged.[2] The latter is a reason for his unwillingness to support a relationship between Hamlet and his daughter.

But what are the reasons for Polonius´s applying general concepts to everything? Is it only because he has become old and needs now some general patterns to cope with difficult situations? Or does it have its roots in his character?

We can assume that Polonius´s general concepts consist of and derive from the experience he has gained in the course of his life. The significance of his own experience becomes clear, when he says that he `suffered much extremity for love´ [II.ii.192] in his youth. His own experience makes him assume that Hamlet is mad with love. And of course his way of spying on his son reveals a great deal of cunning. In this respect he is not superficial or naïve at all, but very experienced. It is also his experience which makes him act in a way that can by no means be called honest: `Your bait of Falsehood takes this carp of truth´ [II.i.62]. He spies on Laertes as well as on Ophelia; he hides behind curtains; and he obviously lies, when he tells the king and the queen that it was his modesty which caused his objection to a relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Therefore it is well-founded that Hamlet accuses Polonius of being not honest [II.ii.178]; and the queen asks him to be less artful [II.ii.97]. As for Polonius´s being suspicious of his children it must not be forgotten that old people are said to mistrust everybody, which of course is also a generalization.


[1] Uwe Baumann points out that Polonius already worked for Hamlet´s father and that his opportunistic behaviour stands for a corrupt political system which has long since come into being. Cf. Uwe Baumann (1998), Shakespeare und seine Zeit, Klett, Stuttgart, p. 90.

[2] According to Bert O. States it is `Polonius´s zeal of office that brings everyone down´. Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (1992), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 114.

The Roles of Polonius in The Tragedy of Hamlet Essay

2058 Words9 Pages

The Roles of Polonius in Hamlet

As a secondary character, Polonius' roles in Hamlet are ingenious in their variety and purpose. Shakespeare's masterfully crafted play contains such a multi-faceted character in a sense of economy; Polonius fulfills the roles potentially played by several insignificant characters. Polonius plays the wise old man, the fool, the substitute for the king, and the scapegoat (Oakes). Shakespeare's reasons behind the creation of such a significant secondary character are important to the play as a whole. Polonius roles add a crucial dimension to the play's development of plot, the characterization of Hamlet, and the themes Shakespeare ultimately conveys.

From his first appearances, Polonius seems to…show more content…

James L. Calderwood describes Polonius' counsel to his son: "imposing patterns of prudential wisdom on the departing Laertes--establishes the dominance of father over son…control through precept is reinforced by control through spying…in Act two scene one, where Polonius coaches Reynaldo in the subtleties of surveillance" (Calderwood 16). Ultimately, Polonius' advice to his children serves his own interests. He is consciously controlling his image as the wise old courtier and father, but he does not practice his own teachings. The wise old man routine is short-lived once his pre-occupations (his image and duties as lord chamberlain) are made clear.

Polonius' pre-occupation with his courtly duties overshadows his character as the wise old man and marks his role as the fool. As the fool, Polonius provides comic relief, and a "busybody" messenger for the court. His speech, for all its wisdom, "makes him so comic and absurd. All his ludicrous exhibitions of pedantry and expertise, his mouthings of clichés and commonplaces, his observations and definitions--all imprison the mind's potential range in littleness" (Long 137). In addition to his speech being superfluous, Polonius' messages to Hamlet are quite ironic. The arrival of the Players and Gertrude's request to speak with Hamlet have already been relayed to Hamlet before Polonius repeats the messages. This foolish redundancy is comic and even more so is Polonius'

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