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Hamlet, pt. 5 - Polonius is a bad guy

Okay, so last night, when I said I'd be posting about the film versions of Hamlet and then moving on? I was in error. I completely forgot that I intended to talk a bit about Polonius, and about how bad a guy he truly is. Usually he's viewed as a bit meddlesome and, in some cases, a bit of a buffoon (not in a truly comical way, but as a pompous and/or obsequious windbag). But I think his initial portrayal was a bit darker.

Fishmonger and maggots

Early on in Act II, scene 2, Polonius interrupts Hamlet as he's reading ("words, words, words"). You can watch that scene from Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet here:



When Hamlet calls Polonius a fishmonger, he's accomplishing two things at once. First, he's calling him a powerbroker(fishmongers were one of the guilds formed under Edward I in the thirteenth century, and they became quite rich through their monopoly on the catching and sale of fish). Second, he's engaging in a bit of a pun: "fishmonger" sounds quite similar to "fleshmonger", a word for a pimp. Given Polonius's comment to Claudius ("I’ll loose my daughter to him"), the description seems apt. Since actual fishmongers (purveyors of fish) were known to have grown rich possibly through the use of dishonesty in weights and measures, him saying that he wished Polonius was at least as honest as a fishmonger is quite an insult.

Hamlet later comments that the sun (a god) causes maggots to breed in a dead dog (kissing carrion); therefore, Polonius ought not allow his daughter (whom he treats as a dog) to walk in the sun, lest she "conceive". There's a double meaning here for sure, and it results in the characters talking to cross-purposes. 1) Polonius hears it as meaning that he ought not let Ophelia walk with the "son" (here, Hamlet), lest she conceive and 2) Hamlet likely means to impart that Polonius ought not to use Ophelia as a tool to get to Hamlet (treat her as a dog), lest she be infested with maggots (deceit and dishonesty).


Jepthah

In Act II, scene 2, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived and before the players are come, Polonius comes to tell Hamlet what he already knows, for which Hamlet mocks him roundly. Hamlet also compares Polonius to Jephthah, a king from the book of Judges in the Bible. Here's the text from the play:

Hamlet O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius What a treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet Why–
“One fair daughter, and no more,
The which he loved passing well.”

Polonius Still on my daughter.

Hamlet Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?

Polonius If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

Hamlet Nay, that follows not.

Polonius What follows then, my lord?

Hamlet Why–
"As by lot, God wot,"
and then, you know,
"It came to pass, as most like it was"–
the first row of the pious chanson will show you more, for look where my abridgement comes.

Enter the players.

The reference to Jephtha would have resonated with audiences in Shakespeare's time for two reasons: 1) There had recently been a popular play about Jephtha on the stage and 2) There was a popular ballad about Jephtha as well, from which Hamlet is quoting.

In the book of Judges, Jephthah (who we are told is the son of a harlot) promised God that he would offer up the first person to come out his front door as a burnt offering if only God would grant victory over the Ammonites. Little did he know that the first person to come out the door would be his only child - a daughter. Jepthah's stuck though, hoist with his own petard as it were. The daughter isn't sacrificed immediately, though. First she cloisters herself for two months with her ladies-in-waiting to prepare for the sacrifice and bemoan her eternal virginity. The Bible then says that Jephthah "did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she had known no man."

In calling Polonius "Jephtha", Hamlet is calling him a whoreson, and is also calling him into account for treating his daughter as a sacrifice. Perhaps he means to castigate him for barring her marriage and procreation, as some commentators have opined; I think he's just calling him a tool for using her as a tool with which he bargains.

The song from which Hamlet is quoting was a ballad entitled "Jepha, Judge of Israel". Here is the first stanza of the song:

I have read that many years ago,
When Jepha, judge of Israel,
Had one fair daughter and no more,
Whom he loved passing well.
And as by lot, God wot,
It came to pass most like it was,
Great wars there should be,
And who should be the chief, but he, but he.

I found the complete text of the ballad online, but it's not necessary for my purposes to reproduce any more of the text because Shakespeare (wisely) quoted only from the first verse. Ever notice how folks usually know the first few verses of a long song, but usually interest falls off after a bit? Yeah, so did Shakespeare, methinks. But I digress.

Hamlet calls Polonius "Jephthah", thereby skipping us to line two in the ballad, and quotes the next two lines. A bit later, he quotes two more lines to Polonius, leaving only the last two lines of the verse unsaid (or perhaps unsung - there's nothing to say Hamlet didn't sing the lines to Polonius). He concludes his quote with this statement: "the first row of the pious chanson will show you more, for look where my abridgement comes."

Indeed, where it comes is immediately before "Great wars there should be, and who should be the chief, but he, but he." Hamlet is laying responsibility for what is to come on Polonius here, who is the chief mischief-maker in the "war" between Hamlet and the king. I believe it's foreshadowing at its finest, and would have been readily understood by contemporary audiences thanks to the pop culture reference that Shakespeare invoked. When he later abuses Ophelia - knowing that Polonius is listening in - the responsibility for the strife falls on Polonius.

So. Polonius is a malefactor. That's what I think, anyhow. Perhaps this is well-documented elsewhere. I haven't looked. (There are 16 feet of library shelves given to Shakespeare commentary at my local library, and each of the four 4' sections contains 7 shelves, nearly all of which are full edge to edge with books - I simply didn't have the time or inclination to go in-depth on the research. Alas.)

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
dotificus
Jun. 10th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
Fascinating post, Kelly! (I really need an old school Spock icon) I didn't know that stuff about fishmongers. And even though I know the awful Bible story, never thought about the Jephthah reference.

But I still don't think Polonius is a bad buy. He seems too clueless. Officious, yes. The kind of inadvertently bad guy, because too self-absorbed, but not what I would call a malefactor.
kellyrfineman
Jun. 10th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)
I think he's very crafty. He's not always played that way, because he tends to blather on and on, but having read the play three times to prep for my posts, and having watched the movies 4 times (twice for the Branagh - once with commentary), plus once each for Mel and Ethan - and then rereading the Polonius parts in particular, I have to say that Polonius is cocksure that he's always right. He boasts to the king about it, with a "when did you ever know me to be wrong?" statement on more than one occasion, and an "if I'm wrong about Hamlet being crazy because of Ophelia, you can kill me" line as well (which came to pass, but not at Claudius's hands).

Plus, he sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in France, encouraging Reynaldo to slander Laertes in order to fish for information. And he's decidedly neck-deep in whatever's going on with Norway and England. One could argue that he was just doing what is politically expedient (for himself as well as the country of Denmark), I'm sure, and therefore justify it. But for now, I'm sticking with malefactor. In part because I like the word so well. ;)
michellcat
Jun. 11th, 2009 06:36 am (UTC)
I like your take on Polonius.
I think he's a very complex and rich character, and that there are equal parts love and hate in the drawing of him. I see him as less dark, but I think your interpretation is a powerful one and can be played to great effect.

My favorite Polonius was Bill Murray, because my generation looks upon him as a wise fool, a pragmatic idealist. We love him, but we knows he's a sleaze. Hot ice and wonderous strange snow, as Hamlet says. Polonius seems thick at times, and it's tempting to play him as a pantaloon, but he's not.

He's patterned on Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's most beloved friend and chief adviser, Lord Secretary of England, Elizabeth's answer to Henry Kissinger. No fool at all, William Cecil Lord Burleigh ran the court of wards, and educated the greatest minds of the age: Essex, Southampton, Oxford, Sir Philip Sidney, among others. He's a shrewd old fox, who knows when to shut up and agree that a cloud looks "very like a whale."

In my mind, he's more of an opportunist than a malefactor. I doubt he's meant to have conspired with Claudius to murder King Hamlet, but of course he would have blocked any investigation, and helped to cover it up, because that is what his type of person always does. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The sacrifice of Jephtha's daughter, IMO, is alluded to as forshadowing the death of Ophelia, who is being foolishly sacrificed to....gee, who's Polonius serving again? Oh, yeah...Claudius. it all points to Claudis.

I think we're meant to understand that, as Laertes finally shouts, "the king's to blame!" Under the old King, Polonius was a fine advisor and counselor to Hamlet, Ophelia a virtuous maid, Gertrude a loving wife. Everyone is warped from what they should be, in service to Claudius
kellyrfineman
Jun. 11th, 2009 12:29 pm (UTC)
Re: I like your take on Polonius.
Man, do you have it in for Claudius or what? :D

I liked Bill Murray's Polonius, but I prefer Ian Holm's take on him (from Mel Gibson's Hamlet), although truth be told, there hasn't been a bad Polonius among the lot. And, of course, the Branagh film is the only one to include all of the scenes that reveal Polonius to be the schemer that he is - including the scene where he's sending Reynaldo off after Laertes. No wonder so many folks think of him as rather benign, if they're basing their opinions only on a 2 hour version of the play. (Most live theatre versions run about 3 hours, so you see more of the goings-on than are in the Hawke or Gibson versions on film).
michellcat
Jun. 12th, 2009 04:30 am (UTC)
Re: I like your take on Polonius.
Polonius is a spymaster. He's head of the CIA. He's Lord Burleigh.

What Burleigh asks Reynaldo to do, is going to hurt Reynaldo FAR more than it hurts Laertes. If Laertes has earned the good opinion of other nobles, then his indignant friends will skewer the unfortunate Reynaldo. But that's not so much evil, as thoughtless of Polonius.
michellcat
Jun. 12th, 2009 04:31 am (UTC)
benign Polonius
I could see him as a much darker character. Poppy Bush comes to mind.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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