“To thine own self be true…”

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.

These lines are often cited as great wisdom, as evidence of how wise and profound a thinker Shakespeare was. They are spoken, however, by Polonius, who is anything but a wise and profound thinker. Indeed, he is a shallow man, a pompous, long-winded buffoon, one of those “tedious old fools” that Hamlet refers to so contemptuously. These lines of wisdom occur towards the end of an excruciatingly tedious oration delivered by Polonius to his son Laertes, peppered from beginning to end with cracker-mottoes of the most mind-numbing banality. Far from depicting profundity, these lines serve merely to depict Polonius as a man who has no conception of the complexities of life that Prince Hamlet is grappling with, a manwhose idea of wisdom is no more than a few trite and meaningless platitudes.

For what does it mean to be “true to one’s self”? What, for that matter, is “one’s self”? The very opening line of this play, a seemingly casual “who’s there?” spoken by a guard on duty on the battlements, rings through the rest of the play: it poses the question of identity. Is Hamlet being true to his self when he is a sweet prince, greeting his social inferiors Bernardo and Marcellus with courtesy? Or is he being more true to his self when making nasty and obscene suggestions to Ophelia in the open court? When he fails to kill the king when given the opportunity to do so, or when he plunges his sword into the arras only a few minutes later thinking the king is hiding behind it? Even after all these centuries, we have not come close to plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, and this is because his true self, like all our true selves, whether we recognise it or not, is complex: we do not even know what these true selves are that we are instructed to be true to.

To see Polonius’ exhortations to his son as pearls of wisdom is to see the complexity of this play through Polonius’ uncomprehending eyes. It is a grotesque reduction. It is to see the moral paths of Right and Wrong as clear as they are in Aesop’s fables, and characters as flawed for not seeing what is so apparent. It is to imagine that identifying a tragic flaw on the part of the protagonist can help us come close even to an adequate understanding of these endlessly intricate works. Such reduction leads not merely to a simplified view of these works, but to a distorted view. Far from helping us understand the work, it takes us further from it.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe?

7 responses to this post.

  1. —Because you don’t save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don’t know yet what money is. Money is power. When you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

    —Iago, Stephen murmured.


  2. Posted by alan on August 31, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    What parent doesn’t talk platitudes to their children? It is often observed that one doesn’t fully understand hypocrisy until one becomes a parent. This isn’t always laziness, control freakery, fear and ignorance – sometimes even the most intelligent Yyoung adult hasn’t seen enough to be presented with anything more complex, and when they have then advice is surely too late.
    Perhaps I’m becoming like Polonius, just waiting around until some over privileged, positively reinforced young narcisist sticks a blade in me. I’m certainly too old to play Hamlet.
    I don’t know how many selves you’ve got, I guess those of us with fewer social skills inevitably make a virtue of being poor liars and therefore make a virtue of being true to our mere handful of masks. It is simpler this way though, I would dread to have to keep track of myself the way some others do.
    Maybe you are doing Shakespeare a disservice though, why can’t an ignorant old man speak truths handed down to him, and just be in the wrong play at the wrong time, just as Hamlet was. Just because Polonius says something doesn’t necessarily falsify it.


    • Perhaps directing a string of platitudes to one’s child is forgivable: as you say, which parent doesn’t do this? But to see these platitudes as pearls of wisdom seems to me wrong: when the drama enters Hamlet’s internal world, Polonius’ worldly-wise advice is of no use.

      I don’t know that multiple selves are a consequence of wearing masks. Not consciously, at any rate. Hamlet, admittedly, is a complex character, but, as we progress through Shakespeare’s tragedies, what is very noticeable is that his tragic protagonists become simpler, until, by the end, we have the likes of Coriolanus, Antony, and Cleopatra. But even with characters so seemingly straight-forward, so lacking in thought or in introspection, so lacking even in the ability to think, Shakespeare finds human identity to be a complex matter. Antony, for instance, starts the play knowing, or thinking he knows, what he is. By the end, he is puzzled:

      Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
      A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
      A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
      A forked mountain, or blue promontory
      With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
      And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
      these signs;
      They are black vesper’s pageants.

      That which is now a horse, even with a thought
      The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
      As water is in water.

      My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
      Even such a body: here I am Antony:
      Yet cannot hold this visible shape.

      Antony is puzzled not merely by the nature of his true identity, but by his inability to discern what really he is. Antony at one point has a messenger whipped. The very next morning, on learning that a follower has deserted him and has joined the enemy, sends his treasure after him with a gentle message. Is Antony being true to his own self in one instance but not in the other? I don’t think so. Both of them are part of one single identity that is too complex to be pinned down. Even in characters as simple as Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare finds a profound mystery. For if anything is clear from these works, it is surely that human character is a great mystery.


  3. I like Polonius. I’ve always seen him as a likeable old fart. Probably the warrior king Old Hamlet brought him onboard as a favor to someone and kept him as a bit of a fool. Maybe he’s a gifted economist. Who knows. His children are well behaved, respectable people. I have the sense that Gertrude and Hamlet (and maybe even Claudius) have a real affection for the old guy, however tiresome he may be at times–as when Polonius fails utterly to connect with the player’s performance and Hamlet’s brain nearly melts down. Everybody’s got this uncle, right?

    The virtue of his platitudes are not in what he says but in who he says them to and the spirit with which he delivers them. The pow of those three lines, out of the whole catalog of chestnuts, is the terrible irony of how this simple truth–a cornerstone of Western thought–is so easily perverted. Claudius is true to himself and is false to everyone. Laertes tries to be true to himself in agreeing to the plot against Hamlet, but it doesn’t sit well with him and in the end he sees that he has been manipulated. The fencing plot is ignoble and dishonest, and if Laertes had counted to ten and followed Polonius’ advice instead of his rage and confronted Hamlet, he might have learned from Hamlet what was really going on at court and everything might have ended quite nicely. (What a lousy play that would have been.)

    Hamlet’s self is too elusive for him to be true to himself or anyone–except Horatio and the players, and ironically Laertes. He distrusts everyone else, especially those he loves most. Hamlet is at his worst when called upon to be what he is not–a chip off the old block. He is not his father, he is not Fortinbras. He’s a dramatist, at his happiest and most sane when directing a troupe of actors. It is poignant that Hamlet relaxes with Laertes–his apology is courteous and sincere, if inadequate. He knows that Laertes has every reason to want to slice him to ribbons and that Claudius is counting on it. What he does not suspect is that Laertes will stoop to foul play–or bad form, which really surprises Hamlet. That, he can revenge, and he gives Laertes what-for, though he doesn’t try to murder him for it. Hamlet’s instinctive reaction is the correct one.

    “To thine own self be true” can be interpreted two ways–serve your own interests or be honest with yourself and do the right thing. Claudius, Gertrude, Rosen/Stern, even Hamlet’s Ghost all act in their own self-interest, all perhaps fooling themselves that it is the right thing to do because by their own selfish lights their actions make sense. Hamlet, were he honest with himself, would run off and take a stage name; were he to act in his own self-interest, he would run off and take a stage name. He can’t do it either way, because, like Laertes, he believes he has an overriding obligation to revenge his father’s murder (which for both of them turns out to be more problematic than it looks on the stage). Beyond that, he is a prince and he cannot abandon Denmark for the stage–If Claudius had not pulled his shenanigans, Hamlet would still be moping around the court waiting for the crown to fall on his head. Fortinbras, at least, believed that Hamlet would have ripened into a good king. Given the chance, he would have sorted his priorities and made peace with his personal disappointments, found his inner compass and learned to navigate. But that’s tragedy for you.


    • Hello Janet, and welcome. Sorry about the late reply: I’d been away for a week.

      I’m afraid I can’t quite see Polonius as a “likable old fart”. he is certainly buffoonish, but he is also, I think, deeply sinister. It is he who suggests all the hiding-behind-the-curtains business to spy on others. he even sets a spy on his own son. After the notorious nunnery scene, he barely notices his daughter’s very deep and obvious distress. (She becomes unbalanced soon after: that certainly didn’t come out of the blue.) And, of course, utterly indifferent to his daughter’s emotional vulnerability, he had effectively set her up as bait for Hamlet. It’s all very distasteful, to say the least.

      (I remember the late Donald Sinden as Polonius many years ago, bringing out both the buffoonish and the sinister aspects of this character.)

      I take your point that had laertes taken his father’s advice and had counted to ten, he would have taken part in Claudius’ plot against Hamlet: the whole thing sits uneasily with him. But then again, it’s not in Laertes’ nature to “count to ten”: he acts first, and thinks afterwards. And in not counting to ten, he is, it can be argued, being “true to himself”. For it’s not in his nature to be thoughtful, any more than it is in Polonius’ nature to be sensitive to his daughter’s emotional needs.

      I also remain uncertain about Hamlet’s apology to Laertes. It is certainly very courteous, but is it really sincere? Does Hamlet really believe that it was his “madness”, and not he, who had killed Polonius? Does Hamlet really believe that he had no responsibility for the act? I am really not sure: but I find it hard to credit.

      Hamlet’s true bent, as you say, was, no doubt, for the stage. But of course, he was in no position to run off and join a troupe of actors! What Hamlet would have done had his father’s ghost not asked for revenge remains a matter of conjecture. Maybe he would have accepted his responsibilitis, as his less neurotic cousin Prince Hal does. Of course, Hal has to sacrifice a large part of himself to do so, and maybe Hamlet would have had to do the same; Hal rejects his madcap life and his associations with Falstaff; Hamlet would have to reject his academic life at Württemberg, and his leaning for the theatre. But Shakespeare had already written about an intelligent prince making sacrifices in order to accept his responsibilities! The conjectures of what might have been remain fascinating, though!

      All the best, Himadri


  4. A play with infinite variables, each with a whole different set of conjectures. Great stuff. I always enjoy your posts, Himadri. I look forward to your exploration of the 16/17th centuries.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: