The figure of Polonius in “Hamlet” is more interesting the more attention we pay to his crucial role in this long and involved tragedy. Polonius is the father of Ophelia and Laertes. He proposes or supports most of the actions crucial to moving a drama whose theme is hesitation. Polonius is also a highly-placed servant of the Danish monarchy and is well-versed in he the art of spy-craft.

Shakespeare gave to Polonius some of the most memorable lines in the English language. “To thine own self be true” ranks high. And “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” should score well on at least some wisdom meters.

Timeless aphorisms

There is no evidence that Shakespeare sought to influence public policy. But his plays evidence a lively and comprehensive capacity to see the whole of nature as fair game for representation. Polonius is no fool. He is a spectrum like everyone else and his motives like all motives are mixed.

Points of view

At times Shakespeare presented Polonius as an object of ridicule. At times, his speech is fatuous and at times simply over-kill. Hamlet treats Polonius as a dolt. Still, it is arguable that even with all the evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare intended sympathy for the man.

Polonius was after all murdered by Hamlet with scarcely a ne’er do well. His death excites the grief and despair of his daughter Ophelia. He is otherwise quite literally dead and gone. But there is a sense that he is the mover of action in the play. His personality dominates the growing tragedy. And, there are things in Polonius that resonate today.

Polonius is a modern

In some ways, Polonius prefigures the public servant who supports an incompetent and bull-headed master. The usurper King Claudius is at once a coward and a killer. With the king, Polonius is a model of bureaucratic obedience. He plays the power game well.

Bill Murray gives an odd reading of Polonius in a modern-dress rendition available on YouTube.

You will have to see whether you agree that the direction could have been a trifle better.

The Bard knew continuity

In a sense, all of Shakespeare is more timely now than then. Hamlet is about the world unfolding. We have yet to make up our minds on things like spying and the amount of violence we will tolerate.We have certainly moved into an environment where the pithy phrase is valued. Had Ophelia's father lived in our times, he might have been among the leads in "Mad Men."

Polonius reminds us that the figures who live between ourselves and the movers and shakers are not to be passed over without a second or even a third look.

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