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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: March ::
Re: Polonius' Precepts
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0335.  Monday, 10 March 1997.
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[1]     From:   Joseph Tate <
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        Date:   Saturday, 8 Mar 1997 08:44:49 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0333  Qs: Polonius =


[2]     From:   Robert F. O'Connor  <
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        Date:   Monday, 10 Mar 1997 14:38:31 +1000 =

        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0333  Qs: Polonius =


[3]     From:   Bernice W. Kliman  <
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        Date:   Sunday, 09 Mar 1997 00:20:54 -0500
        Subj:   Polonius' Precepts =



[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joseph Tate <
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Date:           Saturday, 8 Mar 1997 08:44:49 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 8.0333  Qs: Polonius
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0333  Qs: Polonius

Roger,

See Alan Fisher's essay on Polonius entitled "Shakespeare's Last
Humanist." It's an interesting read and gets at some of the same topics
you're wondering about. I don't have the publication info handy, but a
quick search in the MLA biblio will find it.

You're right though, Polonius may not be the sweet old fellow we've
assumed he is, although I doubt he's the devil that Branagh makes him
out to be. I'd argue he's somewhere in between, like most worried
parents.

But, Fisher's essay should definitely help.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert F. O'Connor  <
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Date:           Monday, 10 Mar 1997 14:38:31 +1000 =

Subject: 8.0333  Qs: Polonius =
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0333  Qs: Polonius =


Howdy again!

Roger Schmeeckle wrote:

>I am puzzled about the line of Polonius' advice to Laertes: "to thine
>own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst
>not then be false to any man."

I am sure that Laertes was puzzled too, and most of the productions I
have seen have had him play it so.

>This used to seem to me to be good advice.  Now I am not so sure.
>Polonius seems to be an example of the servant without principle, whose
>only values concern how to get on in this world.  "Neither a lender nor
>a borrower be," for instance, may be good, worldly advice, but it is
>also directly contradictory to the teaching of Christ, with which
>Shakespeare's audience can be presumed to have been familiar.

I have to say I think you have hit it on the head by saying that
Polonius is 'without principle' - he is - as far as I am concerned - not
alone in this deficiency among the residents of Elsinore.  But I would
contend further that you are throwing yourself off course by looking for
some consistency with Christian teachings in anything Polonius - or any
other character in the play - says.  Yes, there are numerous references
to Saint Patrick, Purgatory and other aspects of Christian theology (to
say nothing of the dissatisfaction with Ophelia's funeral), but I don't
think that the action of the play can be firmly set within a Christian
milieu.  I think it was Robert Reed who suggested that the plays took
place over a kind of theological cusp between paganism and Christianity,
or at the very least Catholicism and Protestantism.  My own inclination
has always been towards seeing the ethical atmosphere of Elsinore as
rather more Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye, than New Testament
turn-the-other-cheek.

Rob O'Connor

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bernice W. Kliman  <
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Date:           Sunday, 09 Mar 1997 00:20:54 -0500
Subject:        Polonius' Precepts

The short answer to Roger Schmeeckle might be a suggestion to look up
the survey of commentary in the 1877 Furness *New Variorum HAMLET*.  It
contains a  variety of responses that are similar to those we are
collecting for the current NV project.

Below are some comments from the new variorum in progress--

523     these fewe precepts] Critics have considered whether Polonius's
maxims be moral or venial, whether they fit or do not fit Polonius'
character. [STUBBS] (1736, p. 20) argues that the moment before the
precepts cannot be comedic considering "the whole Tenour of this Scene,
with the grave and excellent Instructions which it contains, from
Polonius to Laertes, and from both to Ophelia. It is impossible that any
Buffoonery could be here intended, to make void and insignificant so
much good Sense expressed in the true Beauties of Poetry." On the other
hand, CAPELL (1779-83 [1774] 1:1:124) values the scene's mixed style: "
It has been observ'd, (but where, is not remember'd at present) that the
'precepts' are much too good for the speaker. . . ." CAPELL agrees with
others that Polonius may have "con'd" them and that once the lesson is
over "we are regal'd with a style very different, and flowers of speech
is his way. . . ." While offering no opinion on their suitability to the
dramatic occasion, GENTLEMAN (ed. 1773), regretting the omission in
performance, thinks the lines "deserve attention in public, and perusal
in private." HUDSON (1848) finds Polonius incapable of learning anything
true about human nature from the maxims he has conned (2:117): "coming
from Polonius, they seem but the extraction and quintescence of
Chesterfieldism, of which the first and great commandment is, act and
speak to conceal, not to express thy thoughts, and avoid to do any thing
that may injure thyself. . . and if in this brief abstract of policy he
sprinkles a few elements of manly honour and generosity, it is only to
make the compound more palatable to a young mind. . .  (2:119). =

543     be true] HUDSON (1848, 2:120): "This precept, indeed, has sometimes
been urged as redeeming the author from the utter baseness and
selfishness which the rest of his conduct so plainly indicates: but to
me it seems rather to confirm the view I have taken of him [see Polonius
doc. in characters=83]; for it must obviously mean one of two things:
either, be true to thine own heart, which is perhaps the best morality;
or, be true to thine own interest, which is the worst morality: and all
the rest of the character seems to warrant, if not require, the latter
construction."
 

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