What is comical about Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Polonius in William Shakespeare’s tragedy titled Hamlet is often presented as a comic figure, not only by critics but by Shakespeare himself.  Perhaps the most comical moment in the play involving Polonius is the one in which he tells Hamlet of the arrival of the actors, describing them as the

best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral; scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.

Partly these words are funny because of the sheer variety of dramatic genres Polonius lists, as well as their incredibly complicated combinations. Partly the words are funny because they imply that Polonius’s mind is overly fastidious – too concerned with minor distinctions. Partly they are funny because Polonius seems (here and elsewhere) to love to hear himself talk, just as he seems proud of his knowledge and also seems to enjoy displaying it to others. He also seems proud of his ability to coin unusual phrases. Excessive pride is often comic, and Polonius seems to display such pride here.  Not surprisingly, Hamlet’s response to Polonius is sarcastic and dismissive – partly because he finds Polonius ridiculous here, but perhaps mainly because he has grown distrustful of Polonius, whom he sees as a simple flunky of Claudius.

Another comic moment involving Polonius occurs not long after the one already cited. One of the players is reciting a speech when the following exchange occurs:

First Player 'But who, O who, had seen the mobled queen-'

Hamlet 'The mobled queen'?

Polonius That's good! 'Mobled queen' is good.

Hamlet apparently considers the phrase “mobled queen” a questionable expression; the fact that Polonius instantly praises the term makes Polonius’s literary tastes seem somewhat limited and fairly funny.  Here and throughout this scene, Polonius is often a comic figure. Whether he is an entirely comic figure throughout the rest of the play is another question.  His advice to his Laertes when his son departs from Denmark, for instance, is often played for laughs but actually contains a good deal of genuine wisdom. His children love him and also seem to respect him; it is mainly Hamlet (who has his own problems) who makes Polonius the target of obvious mockery.



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cynosure | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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In addition to wat is rightfully noted above , I would like to add a bit more info.

Polonius never fails to arouse laughter among the audience.His unconscious humour runs throughout the play till his death by the hands of Hamlet. The superficial and shallow worldly wisdom is given expression in the form of the advice to his son Laertes. The words  "to thine own self be true", has a ironical undercurrent as Polonius' action contradicts his words. Then again we find him saying at one moment that "Brevity is the soul of wit" and in the very next moment off he goes blabbering on and on. Dowden aptly remarks " Start the oldman on his hobby of uttering wisdom , and off he will go". His long-winded instructions to Reynaldo on spying the actions of Laertes in France offers us yet another occassion wherein Polonius' Comic nature is revealed . He is a man who plays with words and this is the essence o f his wit. eg. He reports to the King and Queen that

"Your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it ; for, to define true madness,

what is't but to be nothing else but mad?"
May be he intended to say that trying to define madness itself is madness but he ended up saying that madness is nothing but madness. And Gertrude asks for "more matter with less art". Thus his love for words often obscures the meaning. Polonius' s garrulity is thus yet another source of comedy. He is fond of talking and his manner of talking is also funny. He is a sychophant and manipulator and these traits also serve their purpose while shedding some light into the comic elements of his character. The element of humour is most pronounced in the conversation between Hamlet and Polonius about the shape of the clouds in th sky.

It goes like this:

Ham: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?

Polo: By the mass and 'tis , like a camel indeed.

Ham: Methinks it is like a weeasel.

Polo: It is backed like a weasel.

Ham: Or like a whale.

Polo: Very like a Whale.

Thus all these combine together to make  Polonius a wonderful comic figure.

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