The emotional impact of the next scene again depends on the previous one, for there is a marked contrast between the intensity and the superficiality of the two scenes. Here, we also see how three other characters portray our different ways of hiding from the profound.
The scene opens with a conversation between Ophelia and Laertes, who is preparing to embark for France. Their conversation soon touches on Hamlet:
Laertes For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,1
A violet in the youth of primy2 nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,3
Ophelia No more but so?
Laertes Think it no more.
Laertes thus urges his sister to resist the romantic advances of Hamlet for the following reason:
Laertes Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel4 doth besmirch
The virtue of his will; but you must fear,
His greatness weighed,5 his will is not his own.
For he himself is subject to his birth:
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state;
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head.
Laertes contends that Hamlet will be constrained in his choice of partner because he is heir to the throne of Denmark. We shall see, later, that Polonius gives exactly the opposite reasoning, and yet comes to the same conclusion that Ophelia should be wary of Hamlet.
The real reason for Laertes’s concern is probably more in what he says later:
Laertes Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain
If with too credent6 ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest7 maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.
Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes.
Laertes’s main concern appears to be the risk to Ophelia’s good name and, hence, to his family reputation. This is a glimpse of Laertes’s character. He avoids the profound by focusing instead on his reputation and the approval of society and consistently tailors his own behavior to suit the public eye (a characteristic eventually used by the King to manipulate him). This, of course, is a common trait among us and may even appear a virtue. But if we truly confront the profound, it quickly reveals itself as a shallow and irrelevant concern.
It is exactly to show the petty nature of such concerns that Shakespeare places this scene here. It follows immediately after we witness Hamlet in despair over his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage, and later in preparation to meet the ghost of his father. The profundity of that scene and the pettiness of this one are in dramatic contrast. It is painful to witness Laertes and, later, Polonius denying the despairing Hamlet the only thing that may have actually saved him. And this, all because of the petty fear for their family reputation, even when there is not the slightest evidence that Hamlet’s courtship is insincere.
Under these circumstances, Ophelia’s response, now and later to Polonius, reveals much about her character.
Laertes Be wary then: best safety lies in fear.
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
Ophelia I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart.
Ophelia is the passive, obedient one who believes she can avoid the shocks of life by staying within the norms of society and following all the rules. She lacks the spirit of a seeker; when she is confronted with the profound later, she truly disintegrates.
Polonius arrives and finds Laertes still not underway. He takes the opportunity to present him a list of precepts:
Polonius Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard for shame.
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stayed for. There, my blessing with thee.
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.8 Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned9 thought his act.
Be thou familiar,10 but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new hatched, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit11 as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy,
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.12
Every bit of advice in this list is relevant only for mundane matters and does not even begin to address the kind of problems facing Hamlet. The precepts are petty in nature. We cannot imagine Jesus, Buddha, or any other spiritual sage saying these proverbs.
This long string of advice reveals much about the character of Polonius. He is a man mainly concerned with the affairs of the mundane world. Polonius thus represents the pseudo-intellect who refuses to confront the profound and hides behind a dense wall of intellectual arguments and analyses, none of which addresses anything of a spiritual nature.
It was a tradition of the period for a father to advise a son leaving on his travels, and Shakespeare merely rephrases current precepts for Polonius. Nonetheless, they still characterize Polonius as a shallow pseudo-intellect hiding from the profound. The messages in Shakespeare’s plays target the average population, the norm of society. If such precepts were common at the time, it was probably Shakespeare’s aim to deliberately comment on them in this way by having Polonius deliver them.
Let us now look at the last advice of Polonius, which is worth separate consideration.
Polonius This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
This is true enough, but Polonius, as we shall see, fails to heed his own words, words that echo one of the main themes in the play – the question of being honest both to ourselves and to others. Being true to our own self essentially means facing up to reality, to the inevitable, and to the profound. If we are unable to do this, we will fill our lives with petty, irrelevant concerns and deceitful conduct, both to ourselves and to others.
In the play, Shakespeare provides us with a continuous display of exactly this phenomenon. He presents a catalogue of repeated violations of honesty both to one’s own self and to others – violations by practically all the main characters, including Polonius. Only Hamlet courageously faces his mortality and the profound. Unfortunately, he fails to be honest to himself in another way, and also ends up being false to others.
After Laertes leaves, Polonius learns from Ophelia that they had been discussing Hamlet. Polonius asks about their relationship; and when Ophelia protests that Hamlet has been honorable in his courtship, Polonius cynically rejects it all as tricks and traps:
Ophelia My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honourable fashion.
Polonius Ay, fashion you may call it. Go to, go to.
Ophelia And hath given countenance13 to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.
Polonius Ay, springes14 to catch woodcocks!15 I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.
Polonius now gives his reason why Ophelia should be wary of Hamlet. It directly contradicts the reason Laertes gives:
Polonius For Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him that he is young,
And with a larger tether may he walk
Than may be given you.
While Laertes feels that Hamlet, being the heir to the throne, will be constrained in his actions, Polonius says exactly the opposite. Nonetheless they both advise Ophelia against him, and Polonius goes further with a command to his daughter:
Polonius I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander16 any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways.
Ophelia I shall obey, my lord.
In such meek fashion, with these simple words, Ophelia cuts perhaps the only lifeline left to the already distraught Hamlet and abandons him to his fate. The pain her betrayal causes is almost tangible.
If Polonius is unreasonable, Ophelia must appear even more so. But she is meek and seeks to avoid the harsh realities of life by sheltering under the tame submission to convention. Ironically, her actions probably accelerate her eventual confrontation with the profound, something she is totally unprepared for.
1 toy in blood whim of passion
2 primy of springtime
3 perfume and suppliance of a minute momentary diversion
4 cautel deceit
5 greatness weighed high position considered
6 credent credulous
7 chariest most modest
8 character inscribe
9 unproportioned unbalanced
10 familiar sociable
11 habit clothes
12 husbandry thrift
13 countenance authority
14 springes snares
15 woodcocks proverbially stupid birds
16 slander disgrace