“Tedious old fool”, that’s the phrase that comes to mind when referring to one of key characters in Shakespeare’s classic, Hamlet. Polonius the father of Ophelia and Laertes and chief advisor to Claudius. Hamlet more than any character in the play has a command over the audience in respect to how the other characters are perceived. So when he refers to Polonius as a “tedious old fool” what else is the reader to think of this key player throughout the play? Many readers when considering his role in the play have labeled this phrase to Polonius. Not much argument about his age but a fool he is not. To omit Polonius significance and consider his actions as random acts of foolishness, the tragedy of Hamlet could not be revered as a classic.
First of we need to keep in mind the fact that Polonius is chief advisor to the Dane, this puts him in a great position to give an insight into one of the primary characters, Claudius. The conversations held between the king and Polonius gives the reader a more vivid picture of just how twisted the mind of Claudius is and adds to the tragic atmosphere of the play. From these dialogues Polonius exhibits that he is not as simple minded, as he seems. There is a whole lot more going on in the head of the bumbling fool than it appears to be. To show this you would have to consider the faces of Polonius, devotion to his family and loyalty to the king.
The audience is first introduced to Polonius when his son, Laertes, decides that he wants to return to Paris to finish college. At first glance, through a long in depth speech, Polonius acts as a caring father showing genuine emotion towards his son. He will not deny his son request to leave even though it would have been in his best interest to have him stay, he does not wish to be an obstacle in Laertes way so instead he enlightens him the best he could. He gives his son advice, such as, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;” and “to thy own self be true.” Solid fatherly advice and moral statements that anyone can live by in society, these words would be exceptional helpful to those venturing from home such as Laertes. Polonius is trying to protect his son from the hardships of life, he even hires his friend to keep an eye on him. Some see this as mistrust but from an optimistic viewpoint it’s a father concerned about his son staying on the right path that can be mutually beneficially. If Laertes honors his family name like every one should do, Polonius in turn will gain recognition and improve his status in the state.
One of the other characters in Hamlet that gave Polonius a bad rep is his treatment towards his daughter Ophelia. To judge him by today’s standards would be unfair, it was custom in those times for a female to be submissive towards men especially in a father to daughter relationship. Respect and obedience was a must. Polonius was attempting to protect his daughter from a deranged and emotionally disturbed Hamlet at the time. In his lecture to Ophelia, Polonius states that he has experience in the matters of love, “I do know/when the blood burns how prodigal the soul/Lends the tongue vows”(Act I,iii). From this phrase you can gather that Polonius is trying to discredit the authenticity of Hamlets affection. It is easy to mistake love with lust and that would be no surprise involving a prince, especially with a feeble minded female like Ophelia who is susceptible to the words coming from a man who she would readily submit to due to Hamlet’s status.
Polonius takes an assertive role in dealing with his children but what father doesn’t. The play never mentions their mother, so it can be assumed that she is not around. Their father takes care of them and in his own special way loves them. It might not be the kind of love that is common between a father to his children, but its still love.
His involvement in his children lives might not seen ethical but once again we must not forget his obligation to the king. Loyalty to Claudius is absolute, if requested to fulfill a task he must do it. Polonius has a crafty mind, constantly coming up with ways to find answers and little mind plot schemes that will tell the truth about Hamlet.
Now this is where the over-exaggeration of Polonius being credited as a fool comes into play, while setting forth to accomplish the task given to him by Claudius. He was to obtain as much information about Hamlets intentions. Polonius exhibited wisdom and espionage tactics to achieve his goal.
Polonius methods weren’t the best but nevertheless effective and got the desired results, which was to gain insight into Hamlet’s behavior. He sensed some methods in Hamlet’s display of madness and investigated further be scurrying all over the castle gathering information. “…I have found/The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy”(Act II, ii). Polonius searches for cause and reason. He did not just simply accept what he heard, he seeded to discover the truth on his own. He goes into great length about Hamlet’s madness and its relation to love and truth. Supposed love for Ophelia and truth behind his fathers death. Spying and deductive reason are not the attributes of a simple man and certainly not a fool.
Polonius words have had an everlasting impact on the world of literature, his lines have probably been recited the most next to Hamlet. His concern about Ophelia emotional status and advice to Laertes was quite sound. Perhaps Polonius sometimes foolish behavior was simply a clever hoax on his part to catch people of guard or better yet it can be seen as a front to hide the fact from the king that his subordinate was actually wiser. Nevertheless after viewing the two faces of Polonius, the committed father and dedicated worker for the well being of the state there is no reason to disregard his role in the play as a foolish old man.
We cannot judge things from the past by today’s standards but in Polonius case we can make a generalization that can further enhance his reputation. Polonius role can be seen as a politician whose personal life got tangled up into the work place. Take the recent election. President Bush used his daughter during his election campaign in hopes to gain votes. The United States can be viewed as Claudius, Bush as Polonius and Ophelia as Bush’s daughter. If there is one thing that seems to be reflected through out the coarse of time, that is evident in Hamlet, keep your family and business completely separated or you will end up being caught between two extremes. This is what happened to Polonius he was torn between family and business (state) and it led to his demise.