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Polonius

Cleaves, David. “To Thine Own Self be False: Polonius as a Danish Seneca.” Shakespeare Yearbook 3 (1992): 45-61.

HISTORY OF IDEAS / POLONIUS

This article proposes that Polonius “invites comparison to Seneca—not to the tragedies or essays, but rather to the biography of Seneca himself” (45). Regardless of current research on Seneca, Renaissance publications, as well as John Marston’s The Malcontent, reflect negative opinions of the Roman. In this historical context, Seneca and Polonius share several characteristics: both are hypocrites, flatters, and ministers to tyrants (Nero and Claudius, respectively). Although Polonius appears as an imitation of Seneca, he also mocks the Senecan philosophy; but perhaps parody is a necessary choice for the playwright trying to avoid the unfashionable style of Senecan imitation. Fluctuating between derision and concurrence, Shakespeare reveals his familiarity with Thomas Nashe’s criticism of Senecan imitations through subtle clues within the play. According to this article, Shakespeare “found the advice of Nashe and of Nashe’s supporters to be worth not only ridicule but obedience” (57).

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Oakes, Elizabeth. “Polonius, the Man Behind the Arras: A Jungian Study.” New Essays on Hamlet. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning. Hamlet Collection 1. New York: AMS, 1994. 103-16.

HAMLET / JUNGIAN / POLONIUS / PSYCHOANALYTIC

This reading of Hamlet argues that Polonius represents the archetypal figures of “wise old man, fool and scapegoat” and that his “truncated sacrifice, the climax of the action, contrasts with the transcendent one of Hamlet, the climax of the symbolic level” (103). Through Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s various references to and descriptions of Polonius, he is linked with the wise old man figure. But unlike the figure responsible for guiding and instructing the hero, Polonius “inverts the figure” by being overly concerned with his own social/political position (105). Aside from linguistic allusions, the lethal closet scene confirms Polonius’ status as scapegoat. Polonius is mistaken for the King, suggesting the role of the fool. While Polonius “incorporates the fathers in the play into one figure whom Hamlet can confront,” the Prince similarly plays the roles of fool and scapegoat (107): His adoption of an antic disposition “with a conscious purpose” suggests the first, and his sacrifice in the final scene exemplifies the latter (108). But the deaths of the two scapegoats differ: “Through symbols connected with the mother archetype, Hamlet’s sacrifice is, both individually and in its effect on the community, consummate, while Polonius’ is void” (108). For example, Hamlet’s rebirth occurs at sea, water being a symbolic element of the mother archetype (110), but Polonius does not have such an experience. Also, Hamlet’s return to Denmark marks a shift in his priorities, from “the personal to the communal” (111)—something Polonius never achieves. In death, Hamlet “moves beyond the communal to the spiritual,” existing “as a realized ideal” in Horatio’s’ narration, while the dead Polonius is only noted for “the details concerning his corpse” (111-12). Perhaps Shakespeare’s true source is not an Ur-Hamlet but “the archetypes that in this play vibrate beneath the surface” (112).

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Pennington, Michael. Hamlet: A User’s Guide. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

CLAUDIUS / GERTRUDE / GHOST / HAMLET / HORATIO / OPHELIA / PERFORMANCE / POLONIUS

Framed by introductory and concluding chapters that narrate personal experience as well as insight, this monograph “is only in the slightest sense a history of productions”—“really imitating a rehearsal” (22). The first chapter focuses on the action by following the script “line by line” in the style of “a naive telling of the story” which can “often provoke a discovery” (22). As in “most productions,” the “script” is an “accumulated version”: a combination of elements “from the Second Quarto and the Folio and any number of later versions, with occasional mischievous forays into the First (‘Bad’) Quarto” (24). Act and scene designations are replaced by days to avoid confusion and “to draw attention to the fact that, while five separate days of action are presented, Shakespeare’s manipulation of ‘double time’ is so skilled that you can believe that several months have passed by between the beginning and the end” (23). The chapter on Hamlet’s characters comes second because one should not “make assumptions about character until the action proves them” (22). Characters are approached in groups, such as “The Royal Triangle” (Claudius/the Ghost/Gertrude) and “The Commoners” (players/gravediggers/priest). Then attention shifts to Hamlet. After discussing the demands of casting and rehearsing the role of Hamlet, the second chapter describes the excitement of opening night and the energizing relationship an actor shares with the audience. Although challenging, playing the role of Hamlet “will verify you: you will never be quite the same again” (193).

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Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Hamlet. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / CLAUDIUS / GERTRUDE / GHOST / HAMLET / HORATIO / LAERTES / OPHELIA / PERFORMANCE / POLONIUS

Combining literary scholarship with interpretive performances, this monograph promises "a way to listen to and grasp the complex tones of Hamlet and the other characters" (x). Chapters follow the chronological order of the play, pausing to "discuss the important characters as they appear" (12). For example, the first chapter explores the opening scene's setting and events, as well as the variations staged in performances; the examination of this scene is briefly suspended for chapters on Horatio and the Ghost but continues in chapter four. This monograph clarifies dilemmas and indicates "the choices that have been made by actors and critics," but its actor-readers must decide for themselves (xi): "I believe this book will demonstrate that each actor-reader of you who engages with Hamlet's polyphony will uniquely experience the tones that fit your own polyphony" (x).

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Stimpson, Catherine R. “Polonius, Our Pundit.” American Scholar 71.4 (Aut. 2002): 97-108.

POLONIUS

After discussing the stereotyping and “contradictory readings and performances” (99) of Polonius, this article suggests that the character “is difficult, puzzling, and seemingly malleable for a reason”: the necessity of “his job” (100). “He accomplishes what he must accomplish—management of a small but tricky political world—by wearing masks, playing games, setting traps” (100-1) and by concealing “his considerable and considered ambitions” (101). “In brief, the student actor has transferred his love of stagecraft to a love of statecraft that demands dishonesty and disguise” (101). Polonius is “a policymaker” and “a fine seasoned conniver” (101), who “can be direct” when he calls a halt to The Mousetrap, as well as “obsequious and flattering” when he tactfully (and calculatingly) cushions the blow to Claudius and Gertrude of Hamlet’s infatuation with Ophelia (102). Polonius operates within a “hinge position between the court, where he exercises a power dependent upon his skill and position, and the home, where he exercises a power independent of anyone” (103). The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, “Polonius’s immediate problem in the play,” causes him to fuse “his role as court official and patriarch” (104). Due to his “inability to imagine love”—“a huge mistake”—Polonius “concludes that he has to protect his daughter’s virginity” and “his position at court” (104). Although he “is a corporate partner in the death and waste of Elsinore, his last action has a tattered shred of decency”: responding to Gertrude’s call for help (104). Focus “on Polonius as a dodderer permits us to align his errors with age—not with the cognitive arrogance of power” (104).

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All information Copyright © 2002-2007 Harmonie Blankenship
Contact the author at h.blankenship@hamlethaven.com