Hamlet – Polonius: A Tedious Old FoolPolonius is an important and respected person. It seems appropriate that he investigates and controls the behavior of his son and daughter. He, as the King’s advisor is no longer a private person but a public one: what he or his children do has important public, not just personal implications. 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.
In the following speech, Polonius is sending his servant, Reynaldo, to France in order to find out how Laertes, Polonius’s son is behaving himself. Polonius instructs Reynaldo to inquire an acquaintance about all the vile things Polonius assumes Laertes to be doing. “He closes with you in this consequence:”and as you say,I saw him enter such a house of sale” – Vedelicet, a brothel – or so forth.
See you nowYour bait of falsehood take this carp of truth;And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, With windlasses and with assays of bias,By indirection find direction out.” (II. i. 45-72)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” means an indirect approach in hunting.
He talks of the “bait of falsehood” – 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” (II. ii 190). Carp, a big and hard-to-catch fish, symbolizes value and profit. However, the reader is only left to wonder how much real value the truth has if it has been acquired through such underhand methods.
For Polonius, however, the end justifies the means. His methods of finding out the truth suggest that Polonius is not concerned about Laertes’s well-being; rather Polonius is worried how Laertes is making him look. Polonius could have Reynaldo ask Laertes himself about his life in Paris.
Since Polonius wants to know how Laertes appears to other people. Polonius assumes immediately that Laertes is not behaving himself properly; he is ready to believe the worst about his son. He is absolutely sure that he knows how young men behave when away from parental control – drinking, fencing, quarreling, and going to a “brothel”. 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. Polonius’s 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 stratagems. This is evident in the closing lines of his speech where Polonius uses metaphors and pompous figures of speech to stress that he made up his strategy because “of wisdom and of reach,” where “reach” means mental ability. However, as the following passage suggests, Polonius is in fact what Hamlet calls him – a “tedious old fool.” (II. ii. 237).
Polonius has decided 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, Polonius’s daughter. Besid…..e the fact that this kind of love relationship would make Polonius extremely proud because of Hamlet’s princely status, Polonius is gloating 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 timeWere 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.”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, play on words – all delivered in the supreme confidence in his own ability – result in a caricature of a zany.
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.
90) Also, after indulging in another such exercise involving the words true and pity, he exclaims, “A foolish figure!” (II. ii. 98) 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 all is obvious and not worth speaking about to the reader; Polonius’s 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’s 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’s 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.This speech is very artificial. Here, Polonius plays a role – he is humble in his mannerisms and flattery to the King and Queen.
Polonius starts his soliloquy with “My liege, and madam, to expostulate/ what majesty should be, what duty isa” (II.ii. 92-93) 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 the one in the dialogue with Reynaldo, where Polonius speaks instructively and authoritatively. Polonius tries to show off his wisdom and uses inflated language in both of these passages, he still has different masks on, depending in the person he is speaking to. 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.
The stupidity of his advisor stresses one more time that Claudius is not as able a king as King Hamlet was before him. “Madam, I swear I use no art at all,” (II. ii 104) says Polonius, and the readers laugh to the absurdity of this statement. This unfortunately is very characteristic of his personality – to use “art” and to act as a “lawful espial” (III.
i. 35). The artificiality of Polonius suggests the kind of world in which Hamlet and the other characters are now living – full of deceit, pretense and masks.