The story of Hamlet is very much a family drama. Though the play is set in a royal palace in Denmark, the story which unfolds is born from the relationships between family members. The relationship which is most prevalent and examined in the play is that of Father and son. Hamlet’s relationship to his Father and the effect it has on Hamlet is witnessed and examined by the audience, even though Hamlet’s Father is a ghost – that’s beside the point. Fortinbras embarks on an epic quest for revenge after the death of his Father. The third Father we have in this play is Polonius, father to Laertes and Ophelia. In the Polonius family we have rare moments of tenderness and connection between family members in this play. Polonius’ speech, giving advice to his son as he is about to embark on a coming-of-age journey, is a very modern and moving expression of love and concern from a Father to a son.
The precepts speech from Polonius is the audience’s introduction to the Polonius family, containing Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. Laertes is about to board a ship which will take him to France, where he wishes to return in order to continue his travels and life there. (Laertes is essentially returning to a ‘gap year’ trip.) Laertes has only returned for the coronation of the new King Claudius, (and probably the funeral of King Hamlet) so this time for the family to be reunited has most likely been short and all too fleeting for Polonius.
Polonius is an advisor to the King of Denmark, though he himself is not royal. This is an important distinction to make – he exists in the royal court and is an integral part to its function, but he, ultimately, is disposable. Polonius is a cautious and suspicious man, endlessly surmising the cause of the actions of others and poking his nose in other people’s affairs. He is involved with the international affairs of the state, as well as the personal activities of the royal house.
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
Precepts: Advice, principles, rules for life
Blessing: It seems that Polonius may be giving Laertes something in this moment, money or a token of remembrance. Alternatively a gesture, like a hug or handshake.
Unproportioned: out of proportion, inappropriate
Familiar: friendly, present, kind
Hoops: ropes, knots, ties
New-hatch’d: Newly born
Unfledged: youthful, inexperienced
Bear’t: make it so
Censure: disapproval, criticism, complaint
Husbandry: management and conservation of resources
You’re still here, Laertes? Board the ship, hurry up!
The ship is ready to embark and they are waiting for you!
Take this; I’m leaving you with my blessings for a safe voyage.
And, as well as that, remember these few principles – take note.
Don’t let your thoughts be known, or any inappropriate act be done.
Be friendly with people but respectable, not common and vulgar.
Tie your closest and truest friends to your soul with steel chains,
But don’t just let any stranger be one of your close friends.
Be wary about entering into a fight, but if you do end up in one,
make sure your opponent is more worried about you than you are of him.
Listen to everyone, but speak your thoughts to few.
Listen to how others criticise, but reserve your own judgement of others.
Dress as well as you can afford, but don’t be a show off.
Look respectable, not pompous, because the clothing of a man often
tells the viewer a lot about the man.
Don’t lend money or borrow it, for it will make you worse at managing your life.
This is what is most important: Be true to yourself, and what will follow (as surely as the night follows the day) will be your honour and truth to those around you.
Goodbye. By blessings go with you!
Notes on Performance
Many interpretations of Polonius have been depicted through the years. Often he is depicted as a bumbling old fool, sometimes a malicious conspirator with King Claudius, sometimes a cunning politician, and sometimes a loving and naive old man. What is most useful for us in approaching this speech to Laertes (and Ophelia, for the record) is connecting with the text in as truthful and relatable a fashion as is possible. There is a risk in layering judgement on top of this particular speech; making a statement that the character is one way or another, (bumbling, cunning) is robbing the audience of experiencing the character through the words he is saying and making up their minds for themselves.
At its core, this speech depicts a Father trying to communicate with his son, potentially for the last time in a while. The tragic irony of this speech is that these are, in fact, the last words that the Father and son speak to each other. What is useful for us to note is what is not said in these precepts. Many pieces of advice are given: respect yourself, dress well, watch out for fights (but make sure you win) ect, but many words are left unsaid. “I love you, son” for example, remains unsaid. “Write to me often” remains unsaid. “Be careful, look after yourself” remains unsaid. “I’ll miss you” remains unsaid. Now, it is up to the actor to determine which of these phrases (or others) exist within your interpretation of the scene, but this is a decision which must be made. If these precepts only exist on the surface, if all which is being said are these pieces of advice, the scene and speech is robbed of soul and stakes.
Figure out for yourself what Polonius wishes to be able to say, and express that sentiment as desperately as you can through the words you have on the page.
We do not hear of a ‘Mrs Polonius’ at any point in the play of Hamlet. It’s important to consider this piece of evidence within the given circumstance of the Polonius family. Where is the mother figure, and how long has she been gone? Has she passed away in childbirth, (to Ophelia – being the younger) and if so, how has Polonius gone with being a single Dad whilst being an important political figure – the advisor to two Kings? Does this moment of farewell bring up the memory of his wife? Does Ophelia remind him of her? It’s your task to ask these questions and many others to build a detailed inner life for Polonius.
There is a red herring in the way Shakespearean acting is often taught: actors are often told there is ‘no subtext in Shakespeare’. I disagree with this notion entirely. Shakespeare is writing three-dimensional human beings. To portray them as having no deeper activity than the words which are coming out of their mouths is to guarantee a surface level performance. The characters will most likely mean what they say, sure. But this does not mean that the words which they are saying are all that they are saying, or all that they are feeling. Go above and beyond with your construction of Polonius’ character. Feel and understand what he truly wishes to say to his son, and allow that to live within you in the performance. Pursue the earnestness of this speech before imposing prosthetic characteristics on top of it. The audience will take from this speech what they will, whether they find it heart warming or indulgent.
At the end of the day, the characters in Hamlet are desperate for an authentic and honest connection with a loved one. This is one of the few moments in the play where this occurs. Relish that opportunity and apply your own life experience into the words, I guarantee it will make the experience all the more valuable for you.
For more Hamlet Monologues.