At first glance the character, Polonius comes across as a nonsensical, dotty, rambling aged court fool who appears to be putting great interest in his children, Ophelia and Laertes lives. Readers may assume at first that his need to control and have power over his children is a benevolent attitude he has to take care of his children and their well-beings. This essay will be arguing that his foolishness is just pretence and that Polonius is in fact a manipulative character who seeks to look out for his own reputation and by showing authority over his children and controlling them he is able to ensure that his reputation is kept clean. This essay will be focusing on two scenes from the Hamlet movies and will be looking closely at the relationship of Polonius with his daughter and his son; this will demonstrate how desperate he was in ensuring that his reputation was kept clean. The best realization of Polonius would be that he is a manipulative and strategic man who seeks to look out for his means of a reputable reputation; this essay will be validating this point through the different scenes as well as the text.
The first time the readers are introduced to Polonius they are shown how with great reluctance and lots of “…laboursome petition…” (Shakespeare 1.2.59) allowed his son, Laertes to go to France. The first opinion is that Polonius is just like every other father who wants the best for his son but is hesitant for him to be away from home. However, one can conclude that it is more than Laertes being away from home that makes Polonius hesitant to send Laertes away but the fear of his reputation as he is unable to physically watch and keep an eye on Laertes everyday actions. This is shown in the text when Polonius and Laertes talk before he leaves for France. There Polonius gives Laertes ‘advice’ on how to behave in France, but forgets that Laertes is a grown man who is able to look after himself as well as act how he wishes. Polonius draws emphasis on the way Laertes needs to behave whilst being in France that he should “Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar…” (Shakespeare 1.3.59-61) It could be argued whether his advice was given to protect his son or whether it was to protect his reputation.
Just reading the text where Polonius gives Laertes advice, it would be very easy to conclude that he is giving his son words of wisdom in order to protect him but following that a few scenes later, Polonius is seen discussing with Reynaldo a plan for him to go to France to spy on Laertes and watch his behaviour. This just proves how Polonius is obsessed with the upkeep of his reputation and that he is in fact worried that if Laertes acts out in the wrong manner his reputation could be ruined. In the movie Hamlet, 1996, directed by Kenneth Brangagh, (00:51:17/04:02:12) the scene whereby Polonius and Reynaldo discuss the plan to spy on his son, we see how Polonius is determined for Reynaldo to get any sort of information out of Laertes but not in any way that would “dishonor” him. This shows how manipulating Polonius is. He makes Laertes believe that he supports him and trusts him despite the distance but then behind his back uses Reynaldo to do his dirty work and spy on him. He then is strategic in the ways he plans for Reynaldo to get information out of people who know him by placing the assumption that he is “…very wild…” so that whoever he may be speaking to feels free to discuss Laertes behaviour. Something important to note from this scene in the movie, is the irony. Polonius wishes for Laertes to stay out of trouble in order for his reputation to stay well-thought-of but instead an unknown woman is seen in Polonius room in her lingerie and the assumption that her and Polonius been together and that she is of no importance if Reynaldo shows an interest in her to when she walks away and he grabs her before she leaves, which would not add to his ‘flawless’ reputation, as any man of high status would not be seen with just any woman during those times. It also shows the control Polonius has over the woman, Reynaldo as well as Laertes without him even being aware of it. This scene shows how important his reputation is to him and how he would go to all extremes to ensure that not one of his children destroy that for him.
Ophelia, is yet another of Polonius’s puppets who does as he says. The first time the audience meets Ophelia they discover that Ophelia has a love interest for Hamlet and that her brother, Laertes is very uncertain if Hamlets display of love is real or whether it is just a passing feeling, a “perfume and suppliance of a minute, no more.” (Shakespeare 1.3.9-10) The manner in which Laertes describes his uncertainty and his concern for his sister is in an endearing way, he is not forcing her to make a decision but kindly informing her on what his thoughts are of their love interest. He refers to her as his “…dear sister…” (Shakespeare 1.3.33) and encourages her to rather keep “out of the shot of danger of desire.” (Shakespeare 1.3.35) so that she is not hurt. This is different when her father Polonius discusses Hamlet with her. He belittles her choice in man and as seen in the movie Hamlet 1996, directed by Kenneth Branagh, he discusses this matter with her in a very private room with an ominous tone, they in a corner and he pushes her against the wall when describing his feelings regarding the love interest. He is aggressive with her and despite her tearing up and expressing her deep feelings for Hamlet, he forbids her from seeing her. He manipulates Ophelia into thinking that he is looking out for her best interests by saying that “… [He] will teach her…” (Shakespeare 1.3.105) to look at this situation correctly but instead he is once again deeply worried about his reputation, especially since people are already aware of her and Hamlet’s love interest and because Hamlet is classified to be mad, it makes it uncomfortable for him to imagine his daughter being with him as people would have more to gossip about. Polonius then forbids her from seeing Hamlet and this control he has over her makes her agree and “…obey, [her] lord.” (Shakespeare 1.3.136)
Throughout the play Ophelia is seen as an obedient child even when showing her father a letter Hamlet wrote her, and Polonius proudly states how “this in obedience hath my daughter shown me.” (Shakespeare 2.2.123) He uses his daughter again in a strategic manner to spy on Hamlet to prove to the King and Queen that he in fact is mad, therefore showing how important it is for his reputation to be well looked upon, especially if he could please the King and Queen by helping them find the reason for Hamlets madness which he believes to be Hamlets deep love for Ophelia, which is incorrect, it is the haunting of his dead father. He would use Ophelia against Hamlet knowing that both of them share some sort of romantic interest with each other which further proves that he does not care for the sake of his children but for his sake of having a good reputation. Polonius goes to all extremes to prove Hamlets madness; he spies on him when Ophelia and he have a discussion as well as spy on him when he is talking to his mother, which then leads to his foolish death. Polonius had put so much importance on his reputable reputation and at the end ended up dying in a foolish manner. His high ambition to please the King and Queen and huge importance of keeping a clean reputation made him loose track of deeply caring for his children. Ophelia died shortly after her father as she was governed by him and chose him over and Hamlet and found no reason to live anymore, which shows how Ophelia was under great control by her father that she couldn’t even bare to live without him.
By looking at the text and the movie clips we able to conclude that the best realization of Polonius is that he a ruthless politician that is devoted to pleasing the King and Queen and maintaining his reputation instead of looking out for the best interests of his children. Due to his foolishness in the play, he causes his own death and this results in the death of Ophelia and Laertes too, which Polonius wanted to prevent all along. For someone who wanted to keep his reputation so clean, he ended up dying with the worst reputation ever and was remembered to be a controlling fool more than anything else.
Branagh, Kenneth, dir. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. U.K.: Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996. VHS.
Shakespeare, William and Alan Durband. Shakespeare Made Easy. Melbourne: Hutchinson and Co. (Publishers) Ltd. , 1986.