To thine own self be true
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.
"To thine own self be true" is Polonius's last piece of advice
to his son Laertes, who is in a hurry to get on the next boat to
Paris, where he'll be safe from his father's long-winded speeches
[see NEITHER A BORROWER NOR A LENDER BE].
Polonius has in mind something much more Elizabethan than the
New Age self-knowledge that the phrase now suggests. As Polonius
sees it, borrowing money, loaning money, carousing with women of
dubious character, and other intemperate pursuits are "false" to
the self. By "false" Polonius seems to mean "disadvantageous" or
"detrimental to your image"; by "true" he means "loyal to your own
best interests." Take care of yourself first, he counsels, and that
way you'll be in a position to take care of others. There is wisdom
in the old man's warnings, of course; but he repeats orthodox
platitudes with unwonted self-satisfaction. Polonius, who is deeply
impressed with his wordliness, has perfected the arts of protecting
his interests and of projecting seeming virtues, his method of
being "true" to others. Never mind that this includes spying on
Hamlet for King Claudius. Never mind, as well, that many of
Polonius's haughty, if not trite, kernels of wisdom are now taken
as Shakespeare's own wise pronouncements on living a proper