What About Polonius?
One of the main characters in the play Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, is Polonius. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia and is also the right hand man to the king, Claudius. He is a man who is nosy and is constantly babbling about something, yet is a loving father and a loyal servant to the state. Or is he? What exactly is the nature of Polonius? How important was he to Shakespeare’s epic play? Did he really have to die? What about Polonius?
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-winded speech, Polonius acts as a caring father should. He gives his son advice, such as, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;” or “Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” and “to thy own self be true.” Later though, he talks about clothing and outward appearances. In fact he goes off on this subject warning Laertes to not look gaudy and rich. He seems more concerned about how Laertes appears to be then who he actually is. Polonius gives a double standard for the boy to follow.
In that same act, after Laertes leaves, Polonius has another conversation with his other child, his ill-fated daughter, Ophelia. Ophelia tells her father everything (we assume) about her relationship with Hamlet. Polonius tears right into the poor girl with comments such as, “You speak like a green girl,…” or “Think yourself a baby That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,…” making him appear like a rotten old man. Why would Polonius not want Ophelia to get involved with a prince? Many people have debated why Polonius ends up forbidding Ophelia from seeing Hamlet. Some say that Hamlet was too high ranking for Ophelia and that their marriage would have seemed unlikely in Polonius’s eyes. Others say that maybe Polonius just did not like Hamlet and did not want his daughter getting involved with him. Yet others believe that Polonius thought that Hamlet would just use Ophelia, and he did not want to see her get hurt. Polonius did not want Ophelia to be involved with Hamlet, or any other man for that matter, because he was afraid that he would lose control over one of his most precious toys, his daughter. If Ophelia became involved with someone, then all the control that Polonius had over her would be lost. She would belong to someone new, and his toy would no longer be his to play with as he pleased. Polonius had to know everything that was going on, in his children’s lives and in the state too. Possibly he felt a pang of jealousy thinking that maybe his daughter would become queen if she married Hamlet and would end up in a more prestigious position then he.
Just to prove the idea that Polonius needs to be in charge of his domain (his children included) all one needs to do is to look at the beginning of Act II. Polonius asks Renaldo, a close friend of his son, to go and check up on Laertes. Polonius wants to know how Laertes is acting, if he is gambling, drinking, drabbing, and so forth. It could be argued that he is just looking out for the welfare of his only son, but looking at Polonius’s personality, that is highly unlikely. Polonius is a politician. It is generally known that politicians have two faces. They have their real face, and the face that they show to the public. Claudius is an excellent example of a politician. No one in Denmark had any clue that he was the murderer of the previous king. He kept it hidden very well. Claudius has two faces, and so does Polonius. Polonius does not want his statesman face to be blemished by words that his son is acting carelessly. To protect his public image, he sends Renaldo to spy on Laertes. To sum it up, Polonius has to be in control of his children to protect himself. That is why he gave that double standard to Laertes in Act I. He wanted to be portrayed as a loving father concerned about his son, but at the same time throwing in advice that would keep his image from being damaged as well. In Ophelia’s case, he had become so used to being in control, that the idea of losing his power frightened him. He had to do something to regain his composure. He had to get Hamlet out of the picture.
Polonius is the king’s accomplice. His loyalty to the state is so overwhelming that it comes before his children. By setting up Ophelia in Act III to try to find out the cause for Hamlet’s madness, Polonius disregards his daughter’s feelings. Does he not think that she still has feelings for Hamlet? No, he does not think at all. He is doing what he can to please the king, to gain the king’s favor. Again, Polonius, by being a politician, has tasted the sweet rewards of power, and is no doubt hoping that he can taste more. His line to more power is through the king, not his family. His children are, as stated above, just toys that he can use, and use them he does. Ophelia dares not to speak against her father, for children were to respect their elders and women were to follow the directions of men. She was doomed. Laertes was better off because he was in Paris and he was a young man, but he, too, was at his father’s mercy.
Ophelia and Laertes both have a tragic flaw: they love their father. The play never mentions their mother, so it can be assumed that she is out of their lives for whatever reason. Their father takes care of them, and in his own way does love them. It might not be the kind of love that is common between a father to his children, usually most parents do not use their children for their own benefit, but it is, none-the-less, love.
Polonius has a crafty mind, constantly coming up with ways to find the answers, mostly by the technique of spying. His little mind plots schemes that will tell the truth about Hamlet — is he mad, or is he not. He schemes do not always work and he ends up dead because of his sneakiness. His death was necessary. He was part of the rottenness in Denmark. If the play ends with a clean slate, then Polonius has to die. He is not clean. If he were to survive the state would remain rotten, and the death of everyone else would have been in vain. In fact, that is the reason he died first. He is second only to Claudius in how corrupt he is. His death foreshadows the death of others who have been tainted and is the cause of the death of his children. He had tainted both his children, and since the state had to be cleaned, their death was essential. Ophelia became tainted after Polonius led her into the mess with Hamlet. She dies because she goes crazy after her lover killed her father. Laertes’s taintedness and his death are both due to the fact that Polonius was murdered. He tainted Laertes by spying on Hamlet and Gertrude which led to his death which caused Laertes to conspire with the king to kill Hamlet. Laertes dies trying to avenge his father’s death.
Polonius is not as simple minded as he seems. There is a whole lot more going on in the head of the bumbling fool then appears to be. He is a control and power hungry man who uses his children to enhance his image and to push his way through the political ladder of Denmark. He is the one to blame for the death of himself and of his family. He is just a rotten politicain (Aren’t they all?).