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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: October ::
Good Old Man
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1999  Monday, 13 October 2003

From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Sunday, 12 Oct 2003 23:22:48 -0500
Subject:        Good Old Man

Bill Arnold commented that, "we have the pompous Laertes lecturing his
sister; and the pompous Polonius lecturing her brother; and then the
same pompous Polonius re-lecturing the poor sister  again." Perhaps
such pomposity may be more in the eyes of the beholder than in the
character of the man.  To the extent that I am right, I fear that
Polonius is misunderstood, but also demeaned by the inference that he is
not just pompous in this or that situation but that he is the soul of
pomposity-that he is defined largely by his pomposity.  But there is
much more to Polonius that this, and herein lies my argument.

Social critic Jacques Barzun considers how Shakespeare's characters are
"aspects of persons in successive relations."  Through these aspects, we
get a "roundness of character" and a deeper sense of the whole person
than perhaps we have even of ourselves or others.  The point, says Mark
Van Doren, is nicely illustrated by Hamlet's genius for play acting.
"He plays indeed many roles, being supreme in tragedy as Falstaff [is]
supreme in comedy . . . Like Falstaff he shows the man he is by being
many men." [My italics]

Let me briefly elaborate on Barzun's proffered example, that of
Polonius, to illustrate this vital point.  In Polonius, we have a
reasonably intelligent old counselor and solid citizen with more than
his fair share of judgment and wisdom.  Why else would he remain so long
at the center of power?  His obsequiousness to the king?  Well,
something of that kind is required of royal society, though some are
perhaps more subtle in how they express their obsequiousness.

His overblown self-confidence?  That's a natural byproduct of natural
self-esteem apparently reinforced over the years by evidence of
satisfactory service, including service to a new king who, intelligent
and ambitious, will tolerate nothing less-at least not for long.  And
yes, his obvious affection and concern for his children sometimes give
over to intrusiveness, stern command, and somewhat overheated fantasies,
one of which proves fatal.  But there is nothing pompous in this, nor in
his rather thorough instructions to Reynaldo to spy on Laertes while his
son is in Paris-intrusive parenting, but understandable, given his
station in society.

His notorious verbosity, a minor trait, in my view, may be overbearing.
Yet it matters little in any practical sense, given the general rule
that valuable people-talented people, certainly, amusing and beautiful
people too-get a pass for annoying peculiarities not tolerated in
ordinary people.  Let me say a little more, since I think Polonius has
gotten a bad rap for being a pompous and foolish old man, as if pompous
and foolish old men were making a projective call and then foisting that
call on their students.

Polonius occasionally pompous and foolish, no doubt-what elder statesman
, what old father, isn't at least one of these from time to time?  But
Polonius, often pompous?  I think not-not even though Hamlet who, like a
Porsche can run witty circles around just about anyone, most
ungenerously calls him that, and in his least noble and certainly least
Christian moments of scornful malignity.  I suppose if one identifies
with Hamlet, one will embrace his overgeneralized, ungenerous scornful
view of Polonius as pompous and therefore dispensable.

Granted, at one point while offering to explain Hamlet's apparent
craziness, Queen Gertrude begs him to get on with it: "More matter, with
less art."  But that's a trifle.  After all, his verbosity at this point
may be the anxious behavior of a man who is about to tell the King and
Queen that their Hamlet is mad.  Moreover, Polonius' verbosity takes up
surprisingly little of the text of his comments.  Fact is, we tend to
exaggerate the importance or frequency of events or qualities that
provoke emotion, for instance, that irritate or delight us.
Objectively, he's just not all that verbose most of the time-sometimes
persistent to the point of obsessionality, but not all that verbose.  Is
Polonius' wise and thorough advice to Laertes (including "To thine own
self be true. . . .") really "verbose"?

In short, there is only some pomposity in Polonius, depending on the
components of its meaning.  There is nothing ornate and little that is
excessively elevated the man; there is nothing arrogant in the man,
except maybe a little with the players, but what of that?  He may
display some excessive self-importance, but that goes with the territory
and, anyway, what is "excessive."  After all,  he IS important.

In Polonius' defense, I must say that a failure at least to mention
other qualities while scornfully waving off the "good old man" as merely
pompous can miss the "roundness of character" that makes a focus on this
or that trait seem trivial.

David Cohen

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