Polonius A Senile Old Fool


Polonius- A Senile Old Fool Essay, Research Paper

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!”. This quote by

Sir Walter Scott has been heard around the world, translated into many languages, and repeated

to us by parents, teachers, and our peers. What does it truly mean? Humans create major and

possibly chaotic problems when trying to beguile others. This quote not only applies to one

person affecting another, but also how the actions of one person trying to deceive many people

through double-talk or hypocrisy lead to complex and sometimes unresolveable events. The

character Polonius in Shakespeare?s Hamlet fits the description of one who tries to deceive others

by wearing different ?masks?, double-talking, and practicing hypocrisy to gain the approval of


It is safe to assume that since he is the King?s advisor, Polonius must act as a public

person to protect the King?s best interest. Therefore; on a basic literal level, it is justifiable for

Polonius to want to spy on everyone to protect the King. However; if his actions and speeches

are examined closer, it is evident that he is a limited and vain person who is overly concerned with

his appearance and wears different masks to tune up to different people. His first mask is the one

he puts on for Laertes and Ophelia before sending Laertes off to England. He wants Laertes and

Ophelia to think of him as a wise, moral, and respectable father as shown in the following lines:

?Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor be unproportioned thought his act…. Those

friends thou hast, and adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of

steel…..Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. Take every man?s censure, but

reserve thy judgment… Never a borrower nor a lender be…. This above all: to thine

own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to

any man. (Hamlet II, iii 65-86, Shakespeare)?

Polonius does an exceptional job of providing good morals for his son to live by, but then displays

his first act of hypocrisy by judging Hamlet in front of Ophelia just a few lines later by saying ?Do

not believe his vows, for they are brokers, not of that dye which their investments show, but mere

implorators of unholy suits, breathing like sanctified and pious bawds the better to beguile? (II. iii

136-140). He later speaks with Reynaldo and asks him to spy on his son, while still assuming the

authoritative figure he displayed to Laertes and Ophelia. Polonius seems incapable of acting in an

honest manner. His actions are reminiscent of a hunter’s job; using all his wit to uncover the

unwary prey in a roundabout way. He even uses hunters’ terminology. “Windlasses” (II. i. 72)

means an indirect approach in hunting. He talks of the “bait of falsehood” (II. i. 70), being

dishonest to the “prey”, Laertes, and even to the people who are to help him catch the “prey”, the

acquaintances. Polonius wants to catch “the carp of truth”. This topic is echoed later on when

Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger”. His methods of finding out the truth suggest that Polonius

is not concerned about Laertes? well-being; rather Polonius is worried how Laertes is making him

look. Polonius has an inclination toward cynicism and suspicion of other people. For Polonius,

acting rotten comes so naturally that he expects other people to also be like that. His tone

suggests that he is at ease and not at all sorry about using dishonest methods or doubting their

decency. In fact, his vanity makes him very proud of his crafty strategies.

Polonius puts on an entirely different mask for his superiors, including Hamlet. He plays

an ignorant and eulogistic character when he is speaking to Hamlet, which is entirely contrasting

to his authoritative character he portrayed to Laertes, Ophelia, and Reynaldo. He makes small

talk with Hamlet in Act II. sc. ii and keeps his comments and questions short and brief. It is ironic

that Polonius agrees with Hamlet when he says ? To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one

man picked out of ten thousand? (II. ii. 194-195), when Polonius is one of the play?s most

dishonest characters. Polonius also ingratiates Hamlet later in Act II. sc. ii by agreeing with

Hamlet?s comment to the first player, ?The mobled queen??.

Polonius? third mask is the one he shows to the King and Queen. He decides to tell

Gertrude and Claudius that he has discovered the reason for Hamlet’s odd behavior, which is in

his opinion caused by Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. The fact that this kind of love relationship

should make Polonius extremely proud because of Hamlet’s princely status, does not affect

Polonius because he is too overcome with bliss over the fact that he has solved the mystery that is

so important to the King and Queen and everyone is trying to solve. This is evident in his

language full of mannerisms and vanity.

“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 (Hamlet II. ii. 94-99,


This speech is a wonderful relief from the tension and tragic seriousness. Here it is evident that

Polonius is the clown of the play. His use of parallelisms, metaphors, and play on words are all

delivered in the supreme confidence in his own ability. Most amusing is that Polonius is his own

critic, as when, after a bombastic sentence about night, day, and time, he concludes, “brevity is the

soul of wit.” (II. ii. 97) Also, after indulging in another such exercise involving the words true and

pity, he exclaims, “A foolish figure!” (II. ii. 106). Polonius tries to put on a show of his wit by

delivering a tirade addressing what he considers philosophical questions such as those about the

nature of night, time, day, and duty. However, this is all obvious and not worth speaking about to

the reader. Polonius? rhetoric and flowery language that emphasize how profound this

subject-matter is in his opinion make this all the more comical. Also the rhythm of Polonius?

speech is different from the rhythm before it: it is simple, with shorter lines, and even a sort of

rhyme achieved by ending lines with the same words. This rhythm makes the speech seem even

shallower and more superficial, contrasting to Polonius? intend. Nevertheless, the language,

however stupid, suggests that Polonius is an educated man. He is parroting books because to him

pompous language is a sign of wisdom. He is concerned about appearing as wise as possible, at

the same time playing- it- up to the royal couple. His mannerisms are almost self-degrading. This

tone is opposite to his tone of authority which he used when speaking to Laertes, Ophelia, and

Reynaldo, but similar to his tone when speaking with Hamlet though more verbose.

Even though Polonius is a comical character, he has a functional relation to the main

themes of the play and helps us gain insight on other characters. I find the following quote to be

one of Polonius? most ironic lines: “Madam, I swear I use no art at all,” (II. ii 104). Readers

should laugh to the absurdity of this statement. Polonius used a very wicked art; deceit, to gain

knowledge that was none of his business. Polonius was a conniving, pompous hypocrite whose

?end was justified by his means.? He was literally stabbed in the back without his identity being

known to the murderer, just like he symbolically stabbed Hamlet in the back with his reports and

comments to the King questioning Hamlet?s sanity. The artificiality of Polonius suggests the kind

of world in which Hamlet and the other characters live in after his death, as well as a world in

which we live today: full of deceit, hypocrisy, pretense and masks.

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