Polonius

April 18, 2006

The next question on the Pre-Paper is this:

9. Character: what is each character's greatest want and what do they do to achieve it?
(include 5 key moments, text revelations, function in play, name, status)
Please identify main character and why you came to this conclusion.

I'm going to take the characters one at a time. Completely arbitrarily, I'm starting with Polonius.

First, the facts. He's the father of Ophelia and Laertes. No direct mention is made of their mother; we can assume she's been dead for some time. Polonius is the chief advisor to the King, perhaps the equivalent of the Secretary of State. He is not aware that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet, though Claudius trusts him with everything else. It's unclear whether Polonius served Old Hamlet in a similar capacity, or whether he's always been attached to Claudius. Lines suggest he has a gray beard, and is generally considered to be an old man.

The cliché is that Polonius is a babbler, that he talks and talks without saying anything, and that perhaps he's even senile — this was how he was played in the Olivier Hamlet. I much prefer Richard Briers' take in the Branagh Hamlet, which has Polonius as a clever and manipulative schemer. Hume Cronyn was quite good in the Burton Hamlet, and probably came closest to what I'd like to do.

Let's look at what Polonius actually does in the play (I'm using my cut for this, but I may mention one or two instances from the full text as well):

Very early on, the audience is given two pieces of information about Polonius: he is near and dear to the King, and he is the father of Laertes.

Soon after, we see Polonius in his first real scene giving advice to Laertes and bidding him farewell. The advice is overlong, and can be taken as an example of his tendency to babble. It's also formal; the standard father-giving-advice-to-son schpiel. It could be played in a variety of ways: sweet, genuine, distracted, hypocritical, whatever. As of now, I like Bill Murray's take on this (kind of a surprise) in the Ethan Hawke Hamlet that has Polonius falling back on this formal way of saying goodbye because he's completely uncomfortable with actual emotional communication. This fits the dialogue well, and sets up what I think happens later on.

Continuing the same scene, Polonius then confronts Ophelia over her relationship with Hamlet. He quickly gets her to reveal what's been going on, then orders her to stop accepting Hamlet's courtship. He tells her not to take what Hamlet says to her so seriously, implying that Hamlet would never marry Ophelia and that his courtship of her is nothing more than a ploy to get her into bed.

In a scene I've cut, Polonius sends a spy to check up on Laertes. Afterwards, Ophelia rushes in to tell Polonius that Hamlet confronted her with his mad behavior — Ophelia is clearly shaken. Polonius' first reaction is to pump her for information (rather than, say, comforting her). But here's the interesting thing, something I think most productions of Hamlet overlook. Polonius actually apologizes to Ophelia in this scene, admitting that he was wrong about Hamlet! He now believes that Hamlet's madness (which must have been manifesting itself in other ways in the two months since the ghost's appearance, since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have already been sent for and are about to arrive) is the result of Ophelia's rejection — in other words, Polonius believes that he inadvertantly caused Hamlet to go mad.

This drives everything Polonius does for the rest of the play. He goes straight to the King with his new theory (and a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia), saying he's found the cause of Hamlet's madness — it's clear that the King has been trying to discover the cause for some time. But then he blusters again before presenting the letter, another example of the blabbering fool that feeds the cliché. But just as with Laertes, the blustering comes at a point of high emotion, and in this case Polonius has real cause to be unsettled. Not only did he possibly cause the Prince to lose his wits, but he also has to tell Hamlet's parents that Hamlet is in love with his own daughter (something that they've clearly never discussed before, even though Gertrude will later say she hoped that the two would eventually marry). It's awkward, and it's emotional, and Polonius beats around the bush a bit before he can bring himself to say it. He shows them the letter, then very carefully frames his theory — telling the King and Queen that he ordered Ophelia to reject Hamlet's affections out of loyalty and duty to the crown, because Hamlet is too noble for the likes of Polonius' daughter.

Soon enough, Polonius gets a chance to try to confirm his theory — and I get the sense that he thinks he can make up for his mistake, for driving Hamlet mad, by being the one to figure it all out and possibly find a cure. He tries to get Hamlet to reveal the cause of the madness, but Hamlet runs rings around him while dropping a couple of tantalizing hints about Ophelia.

We next see Polonius introducing the Players, talking them up to Hamlet — perhaps trying to ingratiate himself to the mad Prince? He complains that the Player's speech is too long, then immediately compliments it — catching his own mistake and continuing to try to please Hamlet? He seems genuinely moved by the end of the speech, and at the same time uncomfortable with the emotions that have thus been brought out.

Polonius sees the Players well bestowed, then reports with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the King. He now begins a new scheme for proving that he was responsible for the madness by loosing Ophelia to Hamlet, spying on their confrontation with the King. After Hamlet rants at Ophelia and probably reduces her to tears, he offers her no emotional comfort. The King is not convinced that love is the cause, and resolves to send Hamlet to England. Polonius disagrees but consents, asking only that he can try one more time to prove his theory (by using Gertrude instead of Ophelia to confront Hamlet this time) before Hamlet is sent away.

After the play and a couple of quick bits (that I've cut) setting up the closet scene, Polonius hides behind the arras to spy on Hamlet's confrontation with Gertrude. When Gertrude cries for help, Polonius thinks that Hamlet is about to kill her and so reveals himself and gets killed — it's not a stretch to say that Polonius actually sacrifices himself to save the Queen.

So what does Polonius want? To please the King. To prove his loyalty, perhaps something to do with stabilizing his position at court. To prove the cause of Hamlet's madness is love for Ophelia. Ultimately, what Polonius wants is to take responsibility upon himself for everything he possibly can, including:

  • Laertes' life in Paris
  • Ophelia's love-life with Hamlet
  • having caused Hamlet's madness
  • discovering the cause of Hamlet's madness
  • proving that the cause is love
  • the King's safety with regard to Hamlet
  • Gertrude's safety from Hamlet in the closet scene

He's emotionally withdrawn, preferring analysis and spying to actual emotional connection. Maybe he has Asperger's Syndrome. But I do get the sense that he cares about people, and that he's deeply mortified that he caused all this chaos. His desire to take responsibility can be seen as controlling and manipulative, but it's also very sweet in its way.

I'd like the audience to care about Polonius, to see him as someone who means well despite his fear of emotions. That way, his death will have greater weight, and both Ophelia's madness and Laertes' vengeance will feel justified.

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One Response to “Polonius”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I believe polonious was loyal to everyone but hamlet. He has his family in mind at all times. This bEcomes evident when he warn ophila to stay away from Hamlet and also when he sends his son away to school in Paris.


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