Back to: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In the play Hamlet by Shakespeare, Polonius is the chief counsellor of King Claudius. He is the father of two important characters of the play, Laertes and Ophelia. Although referred by Hamlet as “tedious old fool”, Polonius has a very sincere aspect too.
Polonius is brilliant as a courtier. Since the very beginning, he shows a great capacity to persuade the king. Uttering ironic sentences, he seems to be doing the exact opposite of it. When he’s elaborately and falsely reporting on Hamlet’s state of mind to the king and the queen, he can utter “brevity is the soul of wit.”
He is the one who stubbornly accuses Hamlet’s madness to a reason without verifying any fact. Hastily he declares that he has found “the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.” Hamlet greets him as a “fishmonger” whose contemporary meaning was something similar to pimp. He is predisposed to label Hamlet as a madman.
Even when he notices how “pregnant (meaningful)” Hamlet’s replies are, he remains steadfast to his predetermination. He says that Hamlet is raging in madness after the rejection of Ophelia but he also notices that “there’s a method in’t.” One can notice the hangover of his younger days in him.
He has vast knowledge from a long experience in the court but his vanity derails such faculties in him. In contrast to Hamlet’s supreme self-awareness, Polonius is completely devoid of any knowledge about his real self.
In a prophetic manner, Hamlet alludes him to “Jeptha, judge of Israel” who sacrificed his own daughter and it turns out so true because in his vanity, Polonius suppresses his daughter’s true feelings and it deranges her finally.
As a father, Polonius is a superior character. With Ophelia and Laertes, he makes a doting family which reminds us how different the family of Hamlet is. When Laertes is leaving for France, he advises him in the best way a father can.
In an ironic fashion, he says to Laertes “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.”
It reminds us how false Polonius is to everyone apart from his own children. His care for his son is elaborate. He sends another spy Reynaldo to go over there and observe whether Laertes indulges in any wrongful activity. Further, in the play, Polonius keeps his spying trait alive. He also spies on Hamlet to prove his point to the king about the source of his madness.
And it is his final act of spying on Hamlet, when he is listening to him talking to Gertrude, gets him killed as Hamlet mistakes him for Claudius behind the tapestry. Polonius’s death is the beginning of all kinds of misfiring in the play.
Even though hypocritical and reprehensible, Polonius’s character portrays a typical renaissance courtier quite apt at social advancement but blind towards certain human values.