The role of Polonius in "Hamlet": a man of judgement disturbed

Essay, 1993

9 Pages



1. Introduction

2. Polonius´s principles

3. Hamlet´s judgement

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The role of Polonius is a comparatively short one, since he is killed in the third act and thus does not appear in the last two acts. And although his death exerts a decisive influence on the further plot of the play, the consequences of his death are not really part of his role, they rather relate to and depend on Ophelia´s and Laertes´s reactions to his being killed. That might explain why many critical studies of Hamlet seem to neglect Polonius or at least are far from giving a full portray of this character. However, it is remarkable that Polonius appears in all the scenes of the second and the third acts and also in the scenes 2 and 3 of the first act. And the fact that his entrances are so frequent indicates a certain importance. So what can be said about this character?

2. Polonius´s principles

Polonius calls himself an `assistant for a state´ [II.ii.168]. And he has indeed the function of a counsellor at the court of Claudius, which is among others shown by his again and again giving Claudius advice concerning Hamlet. Polonius´s first longer speech can be found in act 1, scene 3, when he tells Laertes to keep to certain principles. In fact Polonius tells his son about nine different precepts, which all must be regarded as commonplaces. The most general precept is certainly his demand `to thy own self be true´ [I.iii.78]. Commonplaces and generalizations are obviously important criteria for Polonius´s judgements; he needs them to understand the world that surrounds him and to orientate himself.

When Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet´s love for her, he resorts to a generalization in order to convince her of the falseness of Hamlet´s vows: `I do know when the blood burns how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows´ [I.iii.115-117.]. Furthermore Polonius says that `wanton, wild and usual slips are […] companions noted and most known to youth and liberty´ [II.i.23]. That is why he does not trust his son, but orders his servant to observe Laertes. Another generalization or saying of Polonius´s is: `´Tis much proved that with devotion´s visage and pious action we do sugar o´er the devil himself´ [III.i.49-51.]. `I do know´, `most known´, `much proved´ – in fact Polonius does not know what is going on at court. His common sense seems to have been replaced by commonplaces and proverbs. And general conceptions constitute his knowledge. This reveals a kind of superficiality which can also be noticed by the fact that the outer appearance of people is very important for Polonius: `… the apparel oft proclaims the man´ [I.iii.72]. Moreover he esteems obedience and honour, which are again very general terms. And of course his behaviour towards Claudius and Gertrude shows a lot of obedience and also obsequiousness.[1] On the other hand he is anxious to be considered as a good adviser and he is afraid of his honour and reputation being damaged.[2] The latter is a reason for his unwillingness to support a relationship between Hamlet and his daughter.

But what are the reasons for Polonius´s applying general concepts to everything? Is it only because he has become old and needs now some general patterns to cope with difficult situations? Or does it have its roots in his character?

We can assume that Polonius´s general concepts consist of and derive from the experience he has gained in the course of his life. The significance of his own experience becomes clear, when he says that he `suffered much extremity for love´ [II.ii.192] in his youth. His own experience makes him assume that Hamlet is mad with love. And of course his way of spying on his son reveals a great deal of cunning. In this respect he is not superficial or naïve at all, but very experienced. It is also his experience which makes him act in a way that can by no means be called honest: `Your bait of Falsehood takes this carp of truth´ [II.i.62]. He spies on Laertes as well as on Ophelia; he hides behind curtains; and he obviously lies, when he tells the king and the queen that it was his modesty which caused his objection to a relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Therefore it is well-founded that Hamlet accuses Polonius of being not honest [II.ii.178]; and the queen asks him to be less artful [II.ii.97]. As for Polonius´s being suspicious of his children it must not be forgotten that old people are said to mistrust everybody, which of course is also a generalization.


[1] Uwe Baumann points out that Polonius already worked for Hamlet´s father and that his opportunistic behaviour stands for a corrupt political system which has long since come into being. Cf. Uwe Baumann (1998), Shakespeare und seine Zeit, Klett, Stuttgart, p. 90.

[2] According to Bert O. States it is `Polonius´s zeal of office that brings everyone down´. Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (1992), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 114.

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The role of Polonius in "Hamlet": a man of judgement disturbed
University of Reading
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hamlet, shakespeare
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Jens Saathoff (Author), 1993, The role of Polonius in "Hamlet": a man of judgement disturbed, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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