What does the following quote by Polonius to Ophelia in Act III, Scene 1 of "Hamlet" mean?
"We are oft to blame in this, -- Tis too much proved - that with devotion's visage and pious action, we do sugar o'er the devil himself" (lines 46-49)
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Polonius has promised the Queen that he will have Ophelia try to learn what is causing Hamlet's madness. So, he has his daughter pretend to be reading her daily prayers, or devotions, in order for her aloneness to be plausible to Hamlet.
Polonius's remark that "with devotion's visage [face] and pious actiion we do sugar o'er the devil himself" means that with the pretense of prayer and saintliness, the devil himself can be covered up. Polonius here makes an admission of the duplicity of his daughter and of himself and others. In an aside the King agrees, saying that words have touched his conscience and he carries the "heavy burden"; that is, guilt.
The definition of visage and pious may help you figure it out. The point is Ophelia is throwing herself at hamlet putting him on a pedestal, she has the best intentions. His visage (face) in her mind is pious (saintly) her devotions actions "sugar o'er" the devil himself. Meaning it Often brings about the worst consequences when we fully express our devout feelings without thinking them through.
It means that the best place for evil to hide, is behind the appearance of virtue. This is not unlike the Biblical principle that suggests that the devil (literally, or as the embodiment of the concept of evil) appears as an angel of light.
The fact that he states that "WE sugar ore the devil himself" is a call to self examination, personal integrity and abandonment of hypocrisy. Timeless truth.
Spare the Rod - V
clarification of nighthawk's answer...
When asked "What's that mean???"
V says "Spare the rod..." implying that the above quote means "Spare the rod, spoil the child", and mocking the henchman he is about to strike.
Moments ago in the same scene in the movie, the henchmen says "Spare the rod, spoil the child" when asked whether or not they should punish Evey Hammond for breaking curfew.
V believes, and I think Polonius is getting at the same thing, that by acting slowly and softly; by taking the "prudent" path with little risk, they are only prolonging and perhaps aiding in the spread of evil ("we do sugar o'er the devil himself").
V therefore strikes the henchmen (and later blows up the houses of parliament) and Polonius attempts to set plans of espionage in motion against Hamlet.
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