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Is Polonius's advice to Laertes good?Act I Scene III

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potatobuttz | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted February 14, 2009 at 2:11 AM via web

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Is Polonius's advice to Laertes good?

Act I Scene III

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frizzyperm | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted February 15, 2009 at 6:40 PM (Answer #1)

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There is a persistent idea (started by the Victorians) that Polonius is a bumbling fool. This doesn't work at all for me. Polonius is a highly intelligent political thinker. For example, his advice to Reynaldo on how to monitor Laertes's wild behaviour is magnificent and brilliant. His advice to Ophelia about love and sex is very accurate.

So, while waiting for Laertes ship to depart, Polonius has a couple of minutes to tell him how to live well. His brief advice is shrewd and parental. He tells Laertes to think before he acts, listen more than talk, keep good friends close but don't worry about drinking buddies. Don't get in fights, watch your money, take care of your appearance, but don't be a peacock etc. All sensible stuff.

Then he knocks out a Shakespearean pearl. "This above all, to thine own self be true." Most people seem to think 'to thine own self be true' just means 'be yourself' and obviously it does mean that. But I think Polonius (Shakespeare) is aiming much higher level than a trite 'hey... be the real you, kid'. He is really saying, "The person who lies to you the most often is... you. Be aware of the lies and distortions and half-truths that you tell yourself about yourself."

To thine own self be true. Don't believe your own propaganda. Rationally observe yourself and be on the alert for self-deceit. Become aware. A message that is usually too uncomfortable for most people.

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ms-mcgregor | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 14, 2009 at 4:37 AM (Answer #2)

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Since parts of  Polonius' advice has been quoted for centuries and several lines has become proverbs for good behavior, I would say his advice was very good. We often hear the following adages, not even realizing they were originally a part of Polonius' speech to Laertes:

"For the apparel oft proclaims the man"I,iii,76)

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be;" (I,iii,79)

"...to thine own self be true," ( I,iii, 82)

In addition, other piece of advice are often said in other ways, but are still part of Polonius' advice.

"Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel" ( I,iii,66,67)

"Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;( I,iii,72)

Although Polonius was rather addled in some of the scenes in Hamlet, this speech survives as some of the best advice a father could give a son.


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kmieciakp | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted February 14, 2009 at 4:02 AM (Answer #3)

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In terms of giving useful advice to Laertes, not really; in terms of conveying his emotional response--of how hard it is for him to let his son go--it's wonderful.

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timbrady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted February 14, 2009 at 8:33 AM (Answer #4)

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I've always found some of his advice interesting, particularly the borrower/lender idea.  However many of his ideas are given an ironic slant with his last remark "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."  Much of what he has told his son suggests that he should put on a front (clothes), and listen more than he speaks (not a bad idea, but look where it got Laertes :)).

I think most of this is good practical advice for the practical person who is out to succeed in this world provided you don't mind being untrue to yourself where necessary :)

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kmieciakp | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted February 15, 2009 at 8:31 PM (Answer #6)

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Frizzy nails it--and further, Polonius, who believes to "by indirection find directions out," even speaks point by point to Laertes' advice to Ophelia.  So, Polonius' opening words, that wind is filling Laertes' sails, suggests he's not too happy with the "primrose path of dalliance" brother Laertes takes with sexual imagery.  But Polonius knows his son; reconciled with "hard consent" to his son's "will," whose "wishes bend again" (play on "bent") to Paris, he gives the boy sexual caveats, puns masked in propriety but directed to Laertes' "puff'd and reckless" occupation: "no tongue," "unproportion'd acts"  "familiar, but not vulgar"; "those friends"  "hoops of steel" "dull not thy palm"  "entertainment"  "quarrel"  "being in"  "Bear't"  "beware of" (be weary of); "ear"; "take each man's cenure (sin, sir)" "reserve thy judgment" ($$); "costly the habit"; "purse"; "apparel oft proclaims the man" (note Polonius never refers to women) "loan loses" (don't give it for free); "and "borrowing dulls the edge" (don't share/double up, stay sharp); "to thine own self be true"--be safe/protect yourself--lines up with Laertes' advice "contagious blastments . . .best safety lies in fear"; "it follows, then, as the night the day" (so when you go out at night), "Thou canst not then be false to any man":  auditory gender pun for the male: "canst" "not"; "be false" (befalls) "to any man" --you can freely market your goods.

So still, not really good advice.

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