To Thine Own Self Be Ironic

This came up in the comments on the “Isn’t Will Ironic?” thread, and I thought it might make for interesting conversation. Polonius’ famous advice to his son.  Neither a borrower nor a lender be, to thine own self be true, we all know the speech.  Right? How ironic is that speech? I’ve heard people argue, “Anybody who quotes Polonius like it’s words of wisdom to live by are completely missing the irony.”  But I don’t understand what it means. Either it’s good advice that is simply being given by a character who himself is not following any of it – in which case, they are still good words to live by.  Or else it’s advice that Polonius doesn’t really mean, and what he’s saying to his son is that if you put a good and proper face on, then you can get away with murder?  Sort of do the whole think with a wink and a nudge? Or is there something totally deeper at work, that I’m missing completely?

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11 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self Be Ironic

  1. I think it's only ironic in a sense that Shakespeare wanted us to garner later from observing Polonius' subsequent behavior. I really don't think it's any more complicated than that; in which case, you've explored every angle in what you wrote above.
    Polonius is the spouter of maxims and old saws throughout the play, many of which he fails to observe himself. It doesn't mean he doesn't see, or *intentionally* ignores the wisdom or worth of what they say or mean. He seems to know quite a lot about "how things should be"
    But, to say is quite another thing than to do, as we all know.
    I'm not equating Polonius, by any stretch of the imagination, with any of Will's more evil-intentioned characters when I say this: But even they sincerely mean what they say when they say it.

  2. I think the speech is ironic in that Shakespeare wants us to look at it critically, rather than accepting it at face value. For one thing, we can observe how well Polonius follows his own precepts during the play (and the answer, of course, is none too well.) But for another, as Ralph Cohen of the American Shakespeare Center observes, the principals of the speech range from tired to useless to self-contradictory. The last precept, "to thine own self be true," might be difficult to fulfill if one is also "giving thy thoughts no tongue," avoiding new friendships ("unhat'd, unfledg'd comrades") and dressing only to stay in fashion ("costly thy habit as thy purse can by"). It's a good exercise to write out and number Polonius' nuggets of wisdom in that speech and then chart out the myriad ways they contradict each other.

    Of course, interpretations of Polonius differ, but I think a critical reading of this passage will reveal all his wise saws to be empty pomposity. This, combined with the oft-cut Reynaldo scene, reveal Polonius as more of an insecure, prying hypocrite than the lovable dodderer he is often portrayed as. I might not call him "evil," JM, but I think Polonius can be classed among the less sympathetic figures in Hamlet. So his speech of useless advice to Laertes is ironic insofar as Shakespeare (and probably the other characters onstage) don't think Polonius is close to being as wise as he thinks he is.

  3. "This above all, to thine own self be true, And then it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."
    I would say that is pretty ironic advice coming from Polonius, a man who was killed because he was hiding behind a curtain, spying on Hamlet. Could he say he was not "false to any man"? Yet, in the context of the speech he is giving to Laertes, it sounds like the most sensible thing he is saying.
    Shakespeare is most subtle when he uses irony.
    I would think this would be a difficult scene for a director and actors. One would want to establish some sort of tenderness between father and son, without being too mawkish, and there is a necessary contrast between the wisdom/age of Polonius and naivete/youth of Laertes. Also important is the contrast between what Polonius should do and what he comes to do. I think, though, he shouldn't seem too idiotic or the scene loses its force. The audience should have to think about how seriously they should take what Polonious has to say.

  4. You're absolutely right, Alexi. Hamlet exposes his hypocrisy at every turn. And Amen! to the idea that he's not a simple, doddering fool–nobody's fool, he. And I totally agree about the Reynaldo scene (almost always cut in editing). I think it's one of the major reasons for a false impression of the character. As I've said about him previously, I wouldn't buy a used car from him. 🙂

    In a sense, I guess one could say that in his advice to Laertes, he's telling him how best to "get on"; or to be a success. Certainly then, as now, that can involve something Machiavellian in someone's makeup which, as we see later, he's all to willing to put into practice.
    Duane mentioned putting on a "proper face" for people. That rings true to an extent. But I also believe he truly thinks, at the same time, his instruction to be legitimate and honorable–"just business" as it were. But we all know how THAT rationalized idea can work.

    Because of these things, and his propensity toward "utility" and "result", even able to dismiss his own use and abuse of his own daughter as though it doesn't exist, I find him to be MUCH less than sympathetic. But again, his knowledge of his own mania, it seems to me, is solidly hidden from his own view. Success at what HE finds to be important is the only thing that matters.

  5. I always thought it was ironic and that we should laugh at him saying all these things that he doesn't really mean. And then I saw Ashland's current production, wherein Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia played the scene with a sort of amused affection, with Laertes and Ophelia reciting some lines along with Polonious–like, "yeah, yeah, dad, 'neither a borrower nor a lender be,' I KNOW." But the entire thing–even though it was slightly being made fun of–was done with such sincerity that it literally brought tears to my eye, because you hardly ever see those three as an actual loving family. Makes the tragedy bigger, I think.

    (Actually, to slightly sidetrack the discussion? That entire production was the most brilliant performance of Hamlet I have ever seen, and I have seen quite a few. If you are able to get to Ashland before November, I heartily encourage everyone to see it.)

  6. Very interesting concept, Kenna. I like it a lot. Polonius offers instruction to Laertes he's probably heard many times before, Polonius being the windbag he so obviously is. And yet, it seems, instruction intended seriously to be writ down in Laertes' "Commonplace Book".
    (My Tables–meet it is I set it down. Ham. 1.5.107)

    So for whom is the irony intended and who displays the irony outright of what Polonius says? Not Polonius himself it would seem, even in the example you cite. In this case he would still seem to be taking his parental advisory role seriously?

    I think the consensus of what's been written here is that Polonius isn't trying to be ironic–but his irony– unintentional on his part–more than bleeds through what he says for us. Thus, it's Shakespeare's irony, intended for our perusal? (as has been stated here) That makes the most sense to me.

  7. Oh, I missed this one!
    I have to say I agree with JM, though. It's clear Polonius is not the man this advice would produce–he defies most of them, actually. This speech–and all the adages within it–also show how concerned with appearance and propriety he is. (Looking for the speech, I found this article.)
    There's also the issue raised whether he's taking his role as a father seriously and actually means what he's saying. The latest BBC/RSC version handles this brilliantly, in a way I'd never seen before: Polonius is delivers this speech, much like one would expect of the players, while Laertes and Ophelia mimic and parody him in the background. Polonius, completely enveloped in his words, is totally oblivious. As Kenna suggested, this paints him the bigger fool and actually garners him some sympathy, in that production.

    Also, you were recently looking for an alternative font for your header. These are great. 🙂

  8. When I think about this, I'm led to believe that it is not ironic. This line fits into a larger more ominous pattern of the play. The truth and what people are allowed to say is always under surveillance. From the very beginning, even in a marriage/funeral, the King is forcing everyone to be happy with his incredibly convoluted spin on the state of his union with Gertrude and the state of Denmark. My final example is in one of my favorite scenes in the play, Act III, Scene 3. Rosencrantz delivers an eloquent and beautiful image of what the king represents to the people which also explains his blind devotion to the king. In the very next lines Polonius says he'll go spy on the Queen and Hamlet because nature may make them partial, and the King says great idea and thus completely negating the ideals Rosencrantz tried to convey.

    To thine own self be true is a massacre of ideals. It should at least add to the dramatic tension in the play. In a recent performance at the Folgers in DC. The line was played with complete sincerity, but in the next scene with Ophelia, Polonius is cruel to his daughter. The contrast was shocking.

  9. This has given me such a great deal to think about. I had no idea until I went looking for the speech what a great lot of interpretation it had inspired.

    – William Wren

  10. Brevety is the soul of whit….
    Does Polonous ever follow his own advice? Ever?
    Platitudes for the unexamined.

  11. Is it not possible that Polonius gave this advice in earnest as he may have hoped to influence his son to live his life in a way he, Polonius, hadn't? He may see himself in his son…

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