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Essay/Term paper: Polonius is folish

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Shakespeare

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Polonius: A Fool in Shakespeare"s Hamlet

Hamlet is the most popular of Shakespeare"s plays for theater audiences and

readers. It has been acted live in countries throughout the world and has been translated

into every language. Polonius is one of the major characters in Hamlet, his role in the play

is of great interest to scholars. Parts of Hamlet present Polonius as a fool, whose love of

his own voice leads to his constant babbling. Scholars have been analyzing the character of

Polonius for centuries, and his role in Hamlet will continue to be analyzed for centuries to

come. Scholars believe that Shakespeare created Polonius as a fool because of his foolish

dialogue throughout the play.

Polonius granted Laertes permission to go back to school in France. While saying

good-bye in his chambers, Polonius tells his son: Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but,

being in, Bear"t that th" opposed may beware of thee. Give every man they ear, but few

thy voice. Take each man"s censure, but reserve they judgment. Costly thy habit as thy

purse can buy, But not expressed 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 or 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.

(1. 3. 71-87) The advice that Polonius gives to Laertes is simple and sounds foolish being

told to a person of Laertes" age. Martin Orkin comments on the nature of Polonius"

speech: 2 "Shakespeare"s first audience would recognize in Polonius" predilection for such

commonplace expressions of worldly wisdom a mind that runs along conventional tracks,

sticking only to what is practically useful in terms of worldly self-advancement" (Orkin

179). Polonius gives Laertes simple advice, to keep his thoughts to himself and to never

lend or borrow money. While this advice is simple, when looked at in full context his

advice to his son is all about self-advancement. Polonius will go to all extremes to protect

his reputation. Grebanier states on the foolishness of Polonius" speech: "Such guidance

will do for those who wish to make the world their prey, but it is dignified by no humanity.

Who can live humanly without ever borrowing or lending? Is one to turn his back on his

best friend in an hour of need?" (Grebanier 285). Scholars believe that the advice Polonius

gives to his son is simple, an when looked at in full context, is foolish and selfish. After

Laertes returns to Paris, Polonius send his servant Reynaldo to Paris to spy on Laertes and

question his acquaintances. Polonius says to Reynaldo: At "closes in the consequence"-ay,

marry- He closes thus: "I know the gentleman. I saw him yesterday," or "th" other day"

(Or then, or then, with such or such), "and as you say, There was he gaming, there

(o"ertook) in"s rouse, There falling out at tennis", or perchance "I saw him enter such a

house of sale"- Videlicet, a brothel- or so forth. See you now Your bait of falsehood take

this carp of truth; And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, With windlasses and with

assays of bias, By indirections find directions out. (2. 1. 61-75) 3 By spying on Laertes,

Polonius is showing the audience and the reader, that he does now trust him. After giving

Laertes a speech on how to behave, Polonius still feels that he has to spy on his son. Joan

Hartwig comments on Polonius" plan to spy on his son: "A machiavellian schemer who

takes his plotting to absurd proportions, Polonius pursues "indirection" for its own sake.

His efforts to discover Laertes" reputation in Paris assume that Laertes will not follow his

earlier advice; thus, the later words become a comic reduction of his previous sermon to

his son" (Hartwig 218). Another reason for Polonius" foolishness is that Polonius is

convinced, and tries convincing others, that the reason for Hamlet"s madness is his love

for Ophelia. He tells Ophelia: Come, go with me. I will go seek the king. This is the very

ecstasy love, Whose violent property fordoes itself And leads the will to desperate

undertakings As oft as any passions under heaven That does afflict out natures. I am sorry.

What, have you given him any hard words of late? (2. 1. 113-119) After hearing of

Hamlet"s madness, he immediately reaches a conclusion and believes, throughout the play,

that he is correct. He does not consider other possibilities and foolishly jumps to the

conclusion that Hamlet is mad for Ophelia"s love. R.S. White believes that Polonius

should have considered other options for Hamlet"s madness: "But when saying that it is

simply Ophelia"s rejection that has made Hamlet mad, he is ignorant of the predisposed

mental state of the young man caused by his mother"s remarriage, the recent encounter

with the ghost and the whole repressive machinery of Denmark"s social 4 and political

life" (White 67). Polonius foolishly believes that he knows what underlies Hamlet"s

madness, while Hamlet, and the audience, knows that he is wrong. Polonius continues to

demonstrate his foolishness by babbling and losing his train of argumentation when

speaking to the King and Queen. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is mad in love for

Ophelia and says: My liege, and madam, to expostulate What majesty should be, what

duty is, Why day is day, night night, and time is time Were nothing but to waste night,

day, and time. Therefore, (since) brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and

outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. "Mad" call I it, for, to define

true madness, What is "t but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go. (2. 2. 93-102) He

says that he will be brief, but continues to babble. The Queen responds to his statement by

saying "More matter with less art" (2. 2. 103). The Queen acknowledges Polonius"

constant babbling and wants him to get quickly to the point. Grebanier comments on the

character of Polonius: "Nothing is left of is ability and shrewdness but a few tags, a few

catch-phrases, to which, even when they do express some grains of truth, he pays scant

heed in his own demeanor. It is he, for example, who utters the celebrated: "brevity is the

soul of wit" (2. 2. 90) -a profound truth; but no character in Shakespeare is so long

winded as Polonius" (Grebanier 283). Polonius continues to complicate a simple statement

and is viewed as a babbling fool by scholars. Throughout the play, Hamlet continues to

insult Polonius and make him look foolish to the audience. Hamlet tells Polonius: "You

are a fishmonger" (2. 2. 190). 5 According to Leo Kirschbaum: "A fishmonger is a barrel,

one who employs a prostitute for his business. Hamlet is obliquely telling the old councilor

that he is using his own daughter for evil ends" (Kirschbaum 86). After Hamlet insults

Polonius and Ophelia, Polonius still refuses to give up this theory that Hamlet is madly in

love. Martin Dodsworth comments on the reaction of Polonius after Hamlet insults him:

"Polonius accepts the bad treatment meeted out to him as that of a man who is out of his

mind: "How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. He is far gone"" (Dodsworth

100). The Shakespearean audience viewed Hamlet as the protagonist of the play, and

some scholars believe that Polonius served as his perfect foil. Bert States comments,

"Polonius is not only the perfect foil for Hamlet"s wit (since irony is the mortal enemy of

the order prone mind), but a shadow of Hamlet as well. Indeed, Polonius literally shadows

Hamlet, or tails him and in shadowing him falls into a thematic parody of his own habits"

(States 116). Thus, Polonius" role in the play as Hamlet"s foil, would be the role of the

fool. The last time Polonius appears in Hamlet is wen he hides behind a curtain in

Gertrude"s room, to hear Hamlet"s conversation with his mother. Hamlet frightens

Gertrude and she cries for help. Immediately after, Polonius foolishly echoes her cry and is

stabbed by Hamlet, thinking it is Claudius. Hamlet, realizing he has killed Polonius says:

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for my better. (3. 4. 38-39)

Elizabeth Oakes comments on this scene, "Although Polonius is not in motley, Hamlet

calls him a fool often enough, although nowhere more significantly than in the closet scene

6 after the murder" (Oakes 106). Hamlet ruthlessly calls Polonius a fool, and his opinion,

as the play"s protagonist, would greatly influence an Elizabethan audience"s view of

Polonius. When Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius" death, Claudius responds by saying:

O heavy deed! It had been so with us, had we been there. (4. 1. 13-14) Claudius knows

that Polonius has been killed in his place. Oakes comments on Polonius" role a the plays

fool: "He is suited for this role because of his incarnation of the fool, the one traditionally

chosen as a substitute for the king in ritual" (Oakes 106). Scholars view Polonius as a

character mocked throughout the play and the nature of his death, as the Kings substitute,

lead scholars to view him as a fool. In conclusion, Shakespeare created Polonius as a very

unique and complex character. Scholars argue and will continue to argue over the reasons

for Polonius" foolishness. Throughout the play Polonius tends to act foolish thinking that

he knows the reason for Hamlet"s madness, while the audience knows that he is wrong.

Shakespeare created Polonius as a controversial character and only he will ever know why

Polonius was created so foolish.


Works Cited Grebanier, Bernard. The Heart of Hamlet. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell

Co, 1960. Hartwig, Joan. "Parodic Polonius". Texas Studies in Literature and Language:

vol. 13, 1971. Kirschbaum, Leo. Character and Characterization in Shakespeare. Detroit:

Wayne State UP, 1962. Oakes, Elizabeth. "Polonius, the Man behind the Arras: A Jungian

Study." New Essays on Hamlet. New York: AMS Press, 1994. Orkin, Martin. "Hamlet

and the Security of the South African State." Critical Essays on Shakespeare"s Hamlet.

New York: G.K. Hall and Co, 1995. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet,

Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington Square Press published by Pocket Books,

1992. States, Bert O. Hamlet and the Concept of Character. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP,



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