What does Polonius mean when he speaks the following quotation to Ophelia in Act III, scene i, of Hamlet?
... 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 state of being alone to be plausible to Hamlet.
Polonius's remark that "with devotion's visage [face] / And pious action 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 practiced by himself and others and about to be practiced by his daughter. In an aside, the King agrees, saying that the words have touched his conscience and that he carries the "heavy burden," that is, guilt.
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.
Polonoious has contrived a meeting between Hamlet and his daughter Ophelia. But this pre- planned meeting is to look natural and spontaneous. Polonoius wants that the encounter should not appear to be orchestrated, though actually it is. Polonoius , who has the habit of making high sounding expressions, makes a satirical fling at the humanity in general. The human-beings are great hypocrites, exhibiting innocent and devotional faces along with false holy actions. These outward signs of piety just sugarcoat the inner devil within our heart. In a way , to use the post-structuralist terminology, our pious signifiers do not refer to the real man within us.
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