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Full Analysis of the Character of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Full Analysis of the Character of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Polonius is a superficial, silly man. As a father, he is indifferent to his daughter Ophelia to the extent that he was described by Hamlet as a “fishmonger” or a pimp who prostitutes his own daughter. He is proud of his eloquence and lengthy speeches. He is a man of self-contradiction. On his first scene with Ophelia, we see him giving her what-seems-to-be fatherly advice on how to be careful in dealing with Hamlet and how to keep her honour and virtue. He tells her not to believe Hamlet’s words because his words and his vows are but a trap with which to catch and destroy Ophelia’s reputation. Those words are contradicted when Polonius meets with the King. The man who once seemed virtuous and caring for his daughter is the same man telling the king that he will “loose” his daughter to Hamlet and that they, him and the King, shall watch from behind a curtain!

       That is why Hamlet would call him later a “fish-monger”. Ironically enough, Polonius, who is obsessed with words and his sense of eloquence, could not understand the meaning of Hamlet’s description of him whose intended meaning is “flesh-monger” or pimp.

       So far, the image which one gets of Polonius at the beginning of the play, as a wise, caring father who gives his son and daughter advice in life, is completely destroyed at the scene in which he reveals how well he use and exploit his daughter to lure Hamlet. In doing so, he is using his daughter as bait.

       Despite the above being stated, Polonius is the epitome (=example) of the traditional father. He tasks one of his son’s mates with spying on his son, Laertes, and to inquire on his behaviour in France. Also, before the departure of his son, he gives him a number of valuable rules and advice in life.

      He tells his son: “Don’t say what you’re thinking, and don’t be too quick to act on what you think. Be friendly to people but don’t overdo it. Once you’ve tested out your friends and found them trustworthy, hold onto them. But don’t waste your time shaking hands with
every new guy you meet. Don’t be quick to pick a fight, but once you’re in one, hold your own. Listen to many people, but talk to few. Hear everyone’s opinion, but reserve your judgment. Don’t borrow money and don’t lend it, since when you lend to a friend, you often lose the friendship as well as the money, and borrowing turns a person into a spendthrift. And, above all, be true to yourself. Then you won’t be false to anybody else.”

    All these precious advice marks Polonius as a traditional father who seems to care for his son. It, also, proves him as an extremely cunning man with guile. Yet, he was the first one to be convinced of Hamlet’s feigned madness. He was fooled by it most. He embraced the idea that Hamlet is mad with love for his daughter Ophelia and he expressed this idea to the king and the queen. He calls Hamlet’s madness “the very ecstasy of love”.

     Even when he comes to explain this so-called love-driven madness to the king and the queen, he gives a long speech of nonsense. After finishing he would say:” brevity is the soul of wit”, then he continues beating around the bush and he sates: “I will be brief: your noble son is mad”. Aside from stating the obvious, he continues his speech of nonsense by defining madness as nothing more than being mad! This is the very soul of his superficial, silly personality. Then finally, he tells them through reading Hamlet’s love letters to Ophelia that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia.

      By doing such a thing, he proves to be a cunning, dishonest man without any sense what-so-ever of the meaning of manhood and honour. He not only used and exposed his daughter, but also revealed and read in public love letters that are supposed to be secret.

      Hamlet mocks him calling him a “fishmonger”. Then, Polonius, not getting the true meaning of Hamlet’s word, tells Hamlet that he is not a fishmonger. Hamlet increases his severity of criticism telling Polonius that he wished that he would be as honest as a fishmonger.

     Polonius was used and exploited by both Hamlet and Claudius. Hamlet uses him to assert his feigned madness to his uncle, while Claudius uses him to spy on Hamlet. It was Polonius who told Hamlet of the coming of the actors to Denmark. By employing the actors, Hamlet is going to make sure of the ghost’s affidavit and decides for sure his uncle’s fate.

     Polonius’s interference in Hamlet’s issues got him killed. That is to say, Polonius got himself killed. After the Mousetrap play was performed and Hamlet made sure of the murder, Polonius came to tell him that his mother wants to speak to him. A\Immediately after this, Polonius goes to tell Claudius of this matter. He will do as Claudius asks; he will spy on Hamlet while talking to his mother by hiding behind the curtain in the queen’s room. While Hamlet is talking to his mother, he hears a voice crying for help from behind the curtains. He mistakes the person behind the curtains for the king and he kills him at once. Polonius is slain due to his foolishness, deceitfulness and inserting his nose in what does not concern him. Hamlet calls him a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”.

       Polonius was a puppet whose strings were in the hands of Claudius. An actor portraying Polonius should address the question of whether he is a devoted father or a ruthless politician. Does he sacrifice Ophelia to his ambitions and/or his fear of being discarded by the King? Does he send Reynaldo to spy on Laertes because he cares about his son, or is he worried about what Laertes' possible behavior might reflect back on his own character? Is he more concerned with his position in Denmark than with the welfare of his children? Is he then the victim of his own contrivances or mistakes?

       Shakespeare mainly uses the character of Polonius to give a comic relief that would alleviate or lesson the tension of the tragedy. Such comic relief is reflected in Polonius’ conversation with Hamlet throughout which Hamlet, one the one hand, is mocking Polonius while feigning madness, while, one the other hand, Polonius thinks of him as a mad man and he goes along with him.

       Polonius is a static, flat character since he remains the same from the beginning till the end. He is the same superficial man who is all the time spying on and intruding in Hamlet’s affair. Polonius is a hypocrite; he made Ophelia break off her relationship with Hamlet. As he did not think that Hamlet cared enough about Ophelia, but when Hamlet shows that he does care about Ophelia, he calls Hamlet “mad.” Polonius is two faced and flatterer because it is assumed that he was loyal to the late King Hamlet, the Queen and Hamlet but as the King Hamlet dies, Polonius becomes loyal to the fatal and deceiving King Claudius. Polonius declares his loyalty to Claudius, the new King when he says, “I assure my good liege, I hold my duty as I hold my soul, both to God and to my gracious king…"

        Polonius’ death by Hamlet causes Claudius to fear for his own life, Ophelia to go mad and Laertes to seek revenge, which leads to the duel in the final act. In the play, Polonius is the first character to die as his plan backfires to cause his death. Ophelia and Laertes being the children, are caused great grief by their father’s death, King Claudius is the most affected as he then finds Hamlet a threat and orders him to go to England with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.

       In conclusion, Polonius is more concerned about his own reputation than about the feelings and well-being of others. He puts a lot of effort into achieving what he thinks is right and uses long, verbose (=containing too many words) speeches to convince of his side; in the end however, he is killed through one of his own sly plans.

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