Hamlet: Character Profile - Polonius


Basic Facts:

Polonius is the father to Laertes and Ophelia and Lord Chamberlain to the court of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. He is presented as being proud, arrogant and pompous as well as being self-serving and someone who is willing to use own daughter to advance his position in court and favour with the king



Quotations & Analysis:





“Give thy thoughts no tongue [...] 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. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”

Before Laertes departs, Polonius mentions a long list of reminders and his expectations about how Laertes should behave and present himself. This never-ending list of reminders seems to show Polonius’ sense of self-importance, believing that what he says is correct. This is especially true when Polonius mentions that “thou canst not then be false to any man” if one is “true”, almost as if Laertes is being taught a lesson. There is also a sense of irony, as Polonius gives a long speech, after mentioning earlier that it is a “shame” (55) that Laertes has not boarded the ship.


The relationship between Laertes and Polonius, when compared to Claudius and Hamlet’s is a more typical one as Polonius appears to be more fatherly when he gives advice, telling Laertes to be “true” to himself.



“Affection, puh! You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?”

Polonius is presented as being insensitive to Ophelia and her feelings. The use of “puh” in the quotation suggests disgust for Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship or at least contempt for Ophelia that she could so readily believe in Hamlet’s protestations of love. Furthermore, Polonius treats Ophelia as if she were a child, using “green girl” and “baby” (105) when talking to her. Polonius does not trust that Ophelia is able to make her own decisions and in this relationship we see a reflection of the more general male and female gender roles that exist in a patriarchal society.



“. . . you’ll tender me a fool.”

Polonius is overbearing and sets high expectations for Ophelia so as to keep his good name. He appears to be more worried about his image than the well-being and wants of his daughter.



“I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth Have you so slander any moment leisure As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look to’t, I charge you, Come your ways.”

In this quotation, Polonius ends his speech with a firm statement in “plain terms” that Ophelia should not “give words or talk with” Hamlet. Polonius is very direct with his request, showing his authority. The use of short sentences such as “Look to’t, I charge you” and “Come your ways” suggests orders that are given to Ophelia. Finally, ending with “come your ways”, a request that Ophelia follows him, does not give Ophelia a chance to respond, further accentuating his authority over his daughter.



“Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris [...] and finding by this encompassment and drift of question that they do know my son, come you more nearer than your particular demand will touch it.”

From this quotation it can be seen that Polonius is crafty and devious as he instructs his servant Reynaldo to find out more about his son’s behaviour without asking people in Paris directly. The fact that Polonius is using such underhand methods to find out about his own son calls into question the closeness of their relationship and paints a picture of Polonious as a cunning courtier who does not seem to distinguish between the way in which you should behave towards your own family and the way in which you should behave to a rival faction in a court intrigue. This serves to accentuate the impression created of Polonius as a politically astute but morally questionable character.



“But, sir, such wanton, wild, and usual slips as are companions noted and most known to youth and liberty”

In this quotation, it can be seen that Polonius stereotypes “youth and liberty” as being wild and unable to control itself. This emphasizes the distinction between reason and emotion that we see running throughout the play and implies the mutual exclusivity of the two.


However, it should also be noted that here Polonius has just instructed his servant not too make up stories about Laertes that are too damaging. In this way it becomes clear that he does not want to destroy Laertes’ reputation … although it could perhaps be argued that it does remain unclear whether he does this for Laertes’ own sake or because of the way in which this might reflect badly on his own reputation.


This line can also be read from a feminist perspective where it appears that Laertes is granted at least some kind of license to behave illicitly (his ‘wild’ ways are counted as nothing more than the ‘usual slips’) in a way that Ophelia clearly would not be.



“Marry, sir, here’s my drift, And I believe it is a fetch of wit”

This is a clear example of the way in which Polonius is arrogant and pompous - he believes that his plan to have Reynaldo find out about Laertes’ wild behaviour is ingenious.



“Come, go we to the King. This must be known, which, being kept close, might move More grief to hide, than hate to utter love. Come.”

This quotation shows that Polonius has complete control over Ophelia as forces her to answer questions and quickly draws conclusions about the situation in a firm and confident manner, such as his claim that “this is the very ecstasy of love” (99). Furthermore, in the quotation, he decides that they should go “to the King” giving Ophelia no chance to respond or give her opinion. Finally, the use of the single word “Come.” in the last line of the scene shows an abrupt end to his speech, suggesting an order or “command” (105) that Ophelia must obey to. This effectively displays Polonius’ authority.



“to expostulate [...] were nothing but to waste night, day, and time; Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes I will be brief.”

This quotation contributes to the impression created of Polonius as a bumbling fool as his speech is verbose and rambling rather  despite the Queen’s injunction to convey “more matter with less art”. (95). Polonius’, insistence that he “use no art at all” (96) creates a sense that he is oblivious to his own behaviour and the word ‘art’ may also imply the deceptiveness and sycophancy of courtiers … as if everything is a kind of act or performance.



“I have a daughter - have while she is mine - Who in her duty and obedience, mark, Hath given me this.” & “This in obedience hath my daughter shown me”

Polonius openly shares that fact that he owns his daughter and the usage of “duty” and “obedience” reinforce this idea of ownership as they imply that Ophelia may not have been willing to give the letter to him. This reinforces the idea of male and female societal role and the way in which a daughter is expected to comply with her father’s requests.


“I would fain prove so. But what might you think, When I had seen this hot love on the wing - As I perceiv’d it (I must tell you that) Before my daughter told me - what might you, Or my dear Majesty your queen here, think, If i had play’d the desk or the table-book, Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb, Or look’d upon this love with idle sight, What might you think?”

Polonius speaks ingratiatingly here and attempts to please Claudius and Gertrude. Polonius does not answer the King’s question of “But how hath she receiv’d his love” (128-129), and instead asks the King of “What do you think of me?” (129). By not answering the King’s question, Shakespeare shows his arrogance and pomposity. Furthermore, Polonius responds quickly to the King’s description of him being “faithful and honourable” with a desire to “prove so” where his rapidity shows his eagerness to ingratiate himself. Finally, Polonius carefully explains the reason why he gave orders for Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, before mentioning the main point of the conversation: Hamlet may have fallen into madness as a result of Ophelia’s rejection. This shows that there has been a lot of careful thought into his speech.



“Hath there been such a time - I would fain known that - That I have positively said, “‘Tis so,” When it prov’d otherwise?”

Once again, this quotation shows Polonius’ arrogance and pomposity and his desire to win the trust of King Claudius.



“‘Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion”

Polonius praises Hamlet, possibly with the objective of winning his trust. This also gives a sense of Polonius’ insincerity as we know that he is trying to extract information about his madness from Hamlet.



“Ophelia, walk you here. [...] Read on this book”

No care for Ophelia, uses her as a tool to find out more about Hamlet and his ‘madness’. Ophelia’s lack of response comments on gender roles and how women are inferior.



“”that with devotion’s visage and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself”

Here Polonius touches on theme of appearance vs. reality as Ophelia must hide the true intention of her appearance in the chapel by pretending to pray. “Sugar o’er” implies excess and a sickliness and the fact that Polonius is ordering his daughter to behave in this way once again reflects the male dominance prevalent in Denmark (and England) at the time … and indeed all patriarchal societies.


In addition there is an interesting hypocrisy here as Polonius appears to be condemning the way in which ‘sweet’ behaviour can cover a multitude of sins while at the same time encouraging Ophelia to behave sweetly in order to trap Hamlet into revealing the truth about his madness.



“It shall do well; but yet I do believe The origin and commencement of his grief Sprung from neglected love.”

This quotation further highlights Polonius’ arrogance as he begins by agreeing with the King by saying “it shall do well”, but continues to insist (perhaps out of some sense of self importance) that Hamlet’s “grief sprung from neglected love”, which was not really seen in the scene.



“How now, Ophelia? You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said, We heard it all.”

This is the only line in which Polonius addresses Ophelia after her encounter with Hamlet, and Polonius’ failure to comfort his daughter after her harrowing encounter with Hamlet reflects the distance between these two characters as he does not give her the chance to speak and seems to show no interest in her emotional well-being. After this line, Polonius immediately continues with “My lord, do as you please”, responding to the King, without any indication of sympathy towards Ophelia.



“That did I, my lord, and was accounted a good actor” [...] “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was kill’d i’ th’ Capitol; Brutus kill’d me”

Polonius’ pomposity is accentuated here firstly through his boasts to Hamlet and the King that he was a “good actor” and further with fact that he “enact[ed] Julius Caesar”.



“O ho, do you mark that?”

There is a continued sense of Polonius’ arrogance and self-importance here as he seems determined to prove to the King that Hamlet’s madness is a result of his love towards Ophelia.



“Give o’er the play.”

“Lights, lights, light!”

Polonius’ authority is demonstrated here as he makes decisions on behalf of the King when he asks to stop the play. An act that also makes it clear that his loyalties lie with Claudius.



“My lord, he’s going to his mother’s closet. Behind the arras I’ll convey myself to hear the process. I’ll warrant she’ll tax him home, and as you said, and wisely was it said, ‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, Since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear The speech, of vantage. Fare you well, my liege, I’ll call upon you ere you go to bed, And tell you what I know”

Polonius’ loyalty to the King is emphasized by his willingness to spy on Hamlet for Claudius, an action that could also reveals that Polonius is conniving and duplicitous. His arrogance is evident with “I’ll warrant” as he appears to think highly of his speculation and it also becomes clear that he thinks highly of Claudius when he comments “wisely was it said”. A lot of deception is evident in the play and this contributes to the idea that appearances can be deceptive and also acts as a criticism of courtly life which is riddled with intrigue and conspiracy.


The stichomythia used between Polonius and the King in their conversation seems to show the King’s trust towards Polonius, as well as his approval towards Polonius’ plan. By suggesting that he’ll “call upon [the King] ere [he] goes to bed” Shakespeare indicates that, for Polonius, the King is the first priority.



“Tell him his pranks have been too broad [...] Pray you be round with him.”


Queen: “I’ll warr’nt you, fear me not.”

From this quotation, Polonius’ arrogance once again becomes clear as his doubts about the Queen’s ability to handle her meeting with Hamlet become clear when he “tell[s]” her what she needs to do and exhorts her “to be round with him”. However, it seems that the Queen does not like Polonius very much, as indicated by Polonius’ incomplete line, the lack of stichomythia, and the Queen not completing the line for Polonius. Furthermore, the Queen says “fear me not”, suggesting that she has confidence in dealing with the situation.


This interaction once again reveals something about the patriarchal nature of the world in which this play was set as Polonius, who is little more than a male courtier, is nonetheless able to give commands and orders to the Queen.




Role in the Play:

Along with King Claudius, Polonius can be seen as another character that greatly prioritizes his self-interest as constantly strives to ingratiate himself with the members of the royal family. There is also a sense of arrogance about him as he constantly expresses his opinions in a long-winded and boorish manner and seems determined to convince others that he is correct. In this way Shakespeare may be using Polonius to criticise the self-serving and sycophantic behaviour of courtiers at the time.


Reading the text from a feminist perspective, Polonius also reveals the differences between male and female roles in Elizabethan society as his treatment Laertes and Ophelia differ greatly: he is over-protective of Ophelia and expects her to comply with his requests. The inferiority of female figures in this play can be seen most dramatically in Polonius’ treatment of Ophelia after her encounter with Hamlet where he does not seem to care about her emotional distress and appears to have lost interest in her now that it has become clear that she is not the cause of Hamlet’s ‘madness’.


Polonius is also used to develop dramatic tension and moments of climax, as he was the one who engineers the powerfully dramatic meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia and whose plan to spy on Hamlet in conversation with the Queen ultimately sparked a chain of subsequent events that led to his own death and the tragic conclusion of the play.