Extended Character Analysis
Polonius is King Claudius’s advisor and Ophelia and Laertes’s father. He is concerned with appearances, especially the reputations of his children. His fatherly advice is well-intentioned but also generic and hypocritical, filled with clichéd aphorisms and self-serving recommendations. He does not shy away from meddling directly in his children’s lives, commanding Ophelia to avoid Hamlet and sending Reynaldo to keep tabs on Laertes in France. As a royal advisor, Polonius’s tactics are underhanded and shady, which makes him the perfect ally for King Claudius as they attempt to assess the threat that Hamlet represents.
Despite Polonius’s attempts to play the spymaster, he fails to properly diagnose Hamlet’s madness or uncover Hamlet’s plans. He is also complicit in Hamlet’s isolation because he forces Ophelia to betray Hamlet’s affections by first rejecting him and then spying on him. Though Hamlet treats Ophelia poorly when she spies on him, Polonius continues to assume that Hamlet’s madness stems from Ophelia’s rejection, and he treats the prince’s apparent infatuation with his daughter as a source of pride. Hamlet sees through Polonius’s schemes and frequently antagonizes Polonius by insulting him or ridiculing his inferior wit. Polonius’s advice to Laertes is full of generic aphorisms, which characterizes Polonius as a self-important and long-winded courtier who is more interested in appearances than true substance. However, different interpretations lend different levels of depth and complexity to Polonius.
Whether or not Polonius was involved in the plot to kill King Hamlet is never made explicit. Instead, readers must interpret Polonius through two broad lenses: he is either complicit in regicide or an ignorant opportunist. By reading Polonius as an ignorant opportunist, his loyalty to Claudius is founded on respect for the crown and a desire to advance his own family. By this reading, he is a foolish character whose contrivances backfire in tragic fashion. However, it can also be argued that Polonius either knew of or at least suspected Claudius’s treachery. By this reading, Polonius is an astute politician and ruthless manipulator who betrays the former king in order to advance his own position. It also explains his conspiratorial relationship with Claudius, who goes out of his way to emphasize Polonius’s importance to the crown.
Polonius contributes to the thematic conflict between appearance and reality that permeates Hamlet. He comes across as a tedious and slow-witted man, but he is also an incredibly influential figure within the Danish court. His advice to his children is superficially sound and he seems to genuinely care about their well-being, but he also spies on them and uses Ophelia as a means of manipulating Hamlet. So duplicitous is Polonius that he poses a constant cipher to readers and audiences, who must discern the intentions behind his ornate words and postures.