Is Polonius a fool, or simply a wise, yet long-winded man?"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Polonius seems at times misplaced: a stock comic character in the midst of a tragedy.  In the serious scene between the queen and her son in Act III, Hamlet stabs at Polonius, believing him a spy.  When he lifts the arras and sees the body of Polonius, Hamlet cries,

Thous wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!/I took thee for thy better. (III,iv,32-33)

As he leaves the room, Hamlet drags Polonius behind her, telling his mother,

...This counsellor/Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,/Who was in life a foolish prating knave. (III,iv,217-219)

That he is a "foolish prating knave" is evidenced in the treatment of his children by Polonius. With them he is base, hypocritical, and dishonest.  When Laertes comes to his father before he departs for France, Polonius spouts platitudes such as "To thine own self be true" (I,iii,78), and, then, after Laertes is gone, Polonius sends a servant to spy upon him.

As the chief observer and part of the corrupt court of Denmark, Polonius lies to his own daughter, Ophelia, telling her that Hamlet does not love her so that he and Claudius can secretly observe Ophelia and Hamlet in order to prove to the king that Hamlet is insane in hopes of gaining favor with the new king.  Encouraging Claudius in his nefarious ways, the sycophant Polonius makes a swift transition from one leader to another, telling Claudius in a long-winded speeech that he "will be brief,":"Your noble son is mad"(II,ii,92). even the queen senses his foolishness, demanding, "More matter with less art" (II,ii,95)

The aged minister of state is, indeed, a fool at times, long-winded at others, and a hypocrite who represents the corruption of the court of Denmark.  Yet, he proves himself unwise since his subterfuge costs him his dignity as well as his life.