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Understanding Shakespeare's Hamlet: Character analysis on Polonius

Understanding Shakespeare's Hamlet: Character analysis on Polonius

Understanding Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Understanding the character Polonius.

Deborah Patrick.


For over four centuries, Shakespeare has been regarded as a literary genius whose intricate themes and well guided plots has served as a reference and inspiration for other poets and writers of today. In his creation of the characters in Hamlet, Shakespeare embodies the different vices as well as virtues which exist in all societies. One of such characters who is often comes across as foolish and a source of ridicule is Polonius. However, Shakespeare being the literary genius that he is makes no explicit commentary on the character of Polonius, rather he depicts him in numerous ways which is open for interpretation amongst many scholars.

To some scholars and literary critics, Polonius is nothing more than a rash intruding fool who deserves to be killed as he has no redeeming features. Polonius’ lack of respect and his intrusion in the private spheres and affairs in the court leads to his untimely demise and this can be explored in two ways; his obsession with courtly affairs and status as well as his use of Ophelia as a bait and commodity. As chief advisor to the King, Polonius is well established in the Danish court, however, he seems to think his position is in jeopardy and thus hangs on to every word that Claudius says. His obsession with image, power and ambition make him resort to deceitful means such as asking Reynaldo to “make inquiry of his behaviour” and using Ophelia as a bait to extract information concerning Hamlet "I'll loose my daughter to him”. The use of the word loose suggest a form of entrapment and confinement which seems to be a recurring symbol in the play.  Polonius’s interference in the domestic affairs of the court shows the patterns of corruption and decay in Denmark, he is devious and selfish and would sacrifice the happiness of his family members for his own gratification. Throughout the play, he is hypocritical telling Laertes to “thine own self be true and avoid gossip” whilst he himself revels in gossip. Mark Orkin is especially critical of Polonius speech stating that on a closer reading, it promotes self-advancement and obsession.

Shakespeare presents Polonius as a wretched, rash, intruding fool who is nothing more than an incompetent adviser, full of clichés and obsessed with the lives of his children. As a father and Chief Advisor to the royal court, he is inept and is of no real value to the individuals in his life. To a large extent, Polonius reveals himself to be a bumbling old man who is intent on staying in power thus, resorting to means which make him foolish and in the end leads to his demise. An initial reading of act 1 scene 3 portrays Polonius as a man of thoughtful nature who cares about his daughter. However, an in-depth analysis of Polonius's language reveal him to be a man lacking in ethical substance  and sensitivity, “consider yourself a green girl” he scolds Ophelia . Similarly, he uses a vast array of long winded boring sentences as well as picking up Ophelia words and using them to mock her, “Ay, fashion you may call it”. In Polonius's terms he regards the word fashion as a form of pretence whilst Ophelia means as the manner in which Hamlet approaches her. He is a typical Elizabethan father who expects his daughter to obey his every demand.

However like all his characters, Shakespeare presents several facets to the character of Polonius. A closer examination of Polonius reveals that there is more to him than meets the eyes. He has been chosen by King Claudius himself and this could suggest that he is or was once knowledgeable in state affairs. On his information about the ambassadors, Claudius compliments him calling him “faithful”. He also must have been efficient at one point as he questions the king, “Has there been a time I have been proved otherwise?” and Claudius replies “not that I know”. Polonius's speech towards Ophelia has been one of much debate whether it is insensitive or truly caring. Some of have argued that If Polonius's speech comes across as insensitive, it is as a result of the paranoia of living in a Elizabethan era where women had little or no value. In conclusion the character of Polonius is one of complexity as Shakespeare makes no explicit clue if he is merely a rash intruding fool.






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