In Shakespeare's Hamlet, describe what happens to Polonius?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, one of the main characters is Polonius. Polonius is an advisor to the King who, ironically, has wise advice that he never takes himself, and who talks too much, while saying very little.

Polonius had served Old Hamlet, the former King of Denmark, before Claudius, the dead King's brother, secretly murdered him in the orchard or garden. When Claudius takes the throne, Polonius continues on in the same position he had prior to Old Hamlet's death. Polonius is also father to Ophelia, Hamlet's sweetheart.

To make himself indispensable, or because he likes to hear himself talk (or both?), Polonius tries to make Hamlet's potential madness about Ophelia, and therefore, about him.

OPHELIA:

...Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,

And with a look so piteous in purport

As if he had been loosed out of hell

To speak of horrors, he comes before me.

POLONIUS:

Mad for thy love?   (95)

OPHELIA:

My lord, I do not know,

But truly I do fear it.

As soon as Polonius makes up his mind that Hamlet's unstable behavior is directly related to his love of Ophelia, Polonius takes the information to the King.

POLONIUS:

That hath made him mad…

Come, go we to the King.   (130)

After Hamlet has seemingly forced a visual admission of guilt in the murder of Old Hamlet, while at the play, Mousetrap, Polonius goes to visit Gertrude in her rooms.

Hamlet, finally sure that Claudius has, indeed, murdered his father, finds the King praying. Hamlet is prepared to kill him there, but knows that if he does so, while Claudius has just prayed and allegedly cleared his soul of all his sins, the King will go directly to heaven, something Hamlet's father was unable to do because he was murdered while he slept. Hamlet hesitates, and leaves. (Ironically, Claudius is kneeling in prayer, but cannot pray.)

Soon Hamlet finds himself at his mother's rooms. Hearing his approach, Polonius, wanting to be at the center of the action and provide what he hopes will appear to be essential assistance, decides to hide behind the arras (a curtain or wall tapestry) to spy on what Hamlet has to say to Gertrude.

POLONIUS:

He will come straight. Look you lay home to him...

I'll silence me even here.

Pray you, be round with him.     (5)

QUEEN:

I'll warrant you;

Fear me not. Withdraw; I hear him coming.

[Polonius hides behind the arras.]

It is important to understand that when Gertrude married her brother-in-law, the Elizabethans considered this an incestuous marriage. When Hamlet enters the room, he makes a threatening move toward Gertrude who shouts in fear. Polonius, behind the arras, also shouts in fear.

Hamlet quickly ascertains that someone is hiding behind the arras. Hamlet thinks it is Claudius, come to share his wife's bed, thus placing the sin of incest once again on Claudius' soul. With this in mind, Hamlet acts to avenge his father's death, stabbing through the curtain, killing Polonius instead.

Polonius dies while spying on Hamlet, and Old Hamlet's murder remains unavenged.

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