Last semester my Grade 12 class raised many good points and questions regarding the quality of character in Hamlet. The students were great at getting me to re-think many aspects of the play which I’ve wanted to blog about for quite some time. When it came to Polonius, their questions really confirmed my preconceptions of this foolish character.
I think that Polonius repeatedly proves that he is more concerned with his own reputation than he is with the well-being of either Laertes or Ophelia. He first demonstrates this in his ordering of Ophelia to break off her relationship with Hamlet when he seems to be looking for an opportunity to emphasize his loyalty to Claudius. He first boasts to his daughter that he remembers what it’s like to be young and that he knows what Hamlet is after (“springes to catch woodcocks”), and perhaps he does… after all, just what are the circumstances of his parenthood? Where is the mother of Ophelia and Laertes? Then, Polonius implies that perhaps Hamlet has already achieved what he sought, telling Ophelia, “and you yourself / Have of your audience been most free and bounteous.” Finally, Polonius seems to relish in the ability to confide in the King and Queen:
What might you think [of me]? No, I went round to work,
And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
‘Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star.
This must not be.’ (II,ii,147)
Oh really? Is it so hard to believe that Hamlet and Ophelia could marry when the Queen herself tells Ophelia:
And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness. So shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours. (III,i,42)
And later, Gertrude adds:
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife
I thought thy bride-bed to have decked… (V,i,250)
Perhaps Polonius is simply worried too that should Ophelia and Hamlet marry, his position as adviser to Claudius would be jeopardized, that he would be relegated to some ceremonial role as father-in-law of the Prince. He does not care for Ophelia’s happiness.
So, when it comes to his hiring of Reynaldo, I am skeptical as to whether or not it can have anything to do with Laertes’ benefit. Yes, I believe that this ‘tedious old fool’, this ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ is spying on his son, and is testing his son, but that these motives pale in comparison to a desire to protect his own reputation and his own position of power as adviser to the King. The important thing is to tone down any blemish that may arise in his family.
More importantly, perhaps, is the juxtaposition of his hiring of Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in II,i with Claudius’ hiring of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in II,ii to spy on Hamlet. I think that Shakespeare is perhaps showing the audience that Polonius and Claudius are birds-of-a-feather.
Image by littledan77