Hamlet

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Polonius Character Analysis

The Lord Chamberlain of Denmark, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia, whom he loves deeply and wishes to protect, even to the point of spying on them. Polonius is pompous and long-winded, and has a propensity to scheme, but without Hamlet's or Claudius's skill. He is very aware of his position and role, and is always careful to try to be on the good side of power.

Polonius Quotes in Hamlet

The Hamlet quotes below are all either spoken by Polonius or refer to Polonius. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Hamlet published in 1992.
Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
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.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker), Laertes
Page Number: 1.3.84-86
Explanation and Analysis:

As Laertes departs for France, his father Polonius gives an extensive speech on how he should comport himself abroad. Here, he discusses how Laertes should represent his interior beliefs to others.

These lines are actually some of the most commonly misinterpreted from all of Shakespeare’s work. Looked at in isolation, they seem to recommend that Laertes act with integrity toward others and represent himself perfectly in accord with his interiority. Polonius contends that if he is faithful to his “ownself” internally, then his outward nature “to any man” will be equally honest and correct. Yet earlier in the same speech Polonius tells Laertes, “Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue”—which advises extensive self-control, in which a “character” is monitored and “thoughts” are left un-vocalized when it suits the thinker. Polonius, then, is speaking these later lines with a deep sense of irony: one should be true only in so far as one is in control of one’s thoughts and actions.

It is essential to be on the lookout throughout Hamlet for these types of ironies, particularly when characters are reflecting on questions of performance and integrity. Quite often a few lines in isolation will seem earnest, but when given more context will actually present the speaker as lying or jesting. Thus by professing that there is an internal self to whom Laertes could be true, Polonius only complicates the stakes of identity—and shows even more so how the self is the result of performance and ever-changing construction.

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Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.97-99
Explanation and Analysis:

After completing his diplomatic relations with Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius begins to speak about Hamlet’s madness. He introduces the speech with this construction that cherishes and promises concise language.

The phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” is another example of how Shakespeare will invert sentence structures for emphatic and rhetorical effect. Most simply this means, “it is important to be brief in order to be witty”—but Polonius instead makes “brevity” a central, constitutive aspect of “wit,” as opposed to a common feature. Just as Hamlet called women the name of frailty, here Polonius has rendered brevity to be wit’s soul. “Tediousness,” on the other hand, is associated with the external parts of the body—the material that is superficial and extraneous. Polonius uses this phrase to justify and introduce his “brief” speech.

As with many of Polonius’ statements, however, these lines are deeply ironic. Polonius is always a verbose character, and this speech is particularly rambling: he discourses extensive about the nature of Hamlet’s madness without making any particularly useful or incisive contributions. These lines themselves serve to elongate the position—adding “an outward flourish” in the very act of denouncing such a gesture. We should note, furthermore, that Polonius is not interested in “truth” per say, but rather just “wit”—which itself a type of “outward flourish.” On the simplest level, this irony further undermines Polonius’s character, presenting him ever more as an unaware fool. But it also offers a broader comment on how people’s promises and intentions often differ from their actions: One may claim brevity to be the soul of wit while failing to be either brief or witty.

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Polonius Character Timeline in Hamlet

The timeline below shows where the character Polonius appears in Hamlet. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 2
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Claudius turns to Laertes, the son of the Lord Chamberlain, Polonius. Laertes asks to be allowed to return to his studies in France. Claudius agrees. (full context)
Act 1, scene 3
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Polonius enters, scolds his son for taking so long, then immediately starts giving him long-winded advice... (full context)
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Polonius asks Ophelia what she was talking about with Laertes. Ophelia answers: Hamlet. After Polonius asks... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
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Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to Paris to give Laertes some money and letters, but also... (full context)
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Polonius concludes that Hamlet has gone mad with love because, on Polonius's orders, Ophelia stopped speaking... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
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Polonius enters and says that he has figured out the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. But, first,... (full context)
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
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Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Polonius returns with the ambassadors. They report that the King of Norway rebuked Fortinbras, who promised... (full context)
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After a long-winded ramble about Hamlet's madness, Polonius reads love letters Hamlet sent to Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude agree that lovesickness may be... (full context)
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Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
Hamlet enters, reading. The King and Queen leave Polonius alone to talk with him. Polonius speaks with Hamlet, who responds with statements about pregnancy,... (full context)
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Polonius enters with the players. Hamlet mocks Polonius, but greets the players warmly. He asks the... (full context)
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Hamlet tells Polonius to treat the players well and give them good lodgings, and privately asks the First... (full context)
Act 3, scene 1
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...to watch the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exit. Gertrude leaves as well, since Claudius and Polonius have chosen this moment to set up the "accidental" meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. (full context)
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Polonius tells Ophelia to walk in the courtyard as if reading a book. He muses that... (full context)
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Claudius, struck by Polonius's words, mutters an aside about a "deed" that his "painted words" (3.1.52) can't hide from... (full context)
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Polonius still thinks Hamlet loves Ophelia. He requests that after the play Hamlet be sent to... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
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Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and others arrive to watch the play. Hamlet tells Horatio he's now going to... (full context)
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...using the word "fare" to mean food, and says he's eating the air. Hamlet mocks Polonius's attempts to act at university, harasses Ophelia with sexual puns, then makes bitter remarks about... (full context)
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Polonius enters, repeating Gertrude's request to see him. Hamlet pretends to see odd shapes in a... (full context)
Act 3, scene 3
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Polonius enters with news: Hamlet is headed to Gertrude's room, where Polonius will hide behind a... (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
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Polonius and Gertrude wait for Hamlet in Gertrude's chamber. Polonius advises her to be tough with... (full context)
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From his hiding place behind the tapestry Polonius hears Gertrude's cry and calls for help. Hamlet, mistaking Polonius for Claudius, stabs Polonius through... (full context)
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...marry with his brother" (3.4.29). Gertrude is shocked. Hamlet pulls back the tapestry and sees Polonius. He dismisses him as a "rash, intruding fool" (3.4.32). (full context)
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Hamlet exits, dragging Polonius's body after him. (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
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...that Gertrude is upset. She says Hamlet was acting insane, and in his madness killed Polonius. (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet. They ask where Polonius's body is. Hamlet responds in riddles and insults—he calls Rosencrantz a "sponge" soaking up the... (full context)
Act 4, scene 3
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Claudius mulls how to deal with Hamlet. The killing of Polonius has convinced him that Hamlet is too dangerous to remain nearby, but at the same... (full context)
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Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter with Hamlet. Claudius asks where Polonius is. Hamlet answers that Polonius is feeding worms. He explains that a dead king will... (full context)
Act 4, scene 5
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Gertrude and Horatio sadly discuss the madness that has taken over Ophelia since Polonius was killed. Ophelia enters, singing mournful songs about her father. (full context)
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Claudius mentions that the commoners are also angry about Polonius's death, and that Laertes has secretly sailed back to Denmark. A messenger rushes in with... (full context)
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...exclaims that the mob and Laertes are blaming the wrong person for the death of Polonius. (full context)
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Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
...dare damnation just to get revenge for the death of his father. Claudius admits that Polonius is dead. Gertrude adds that Claudius did not kill him. (full context)
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Claudius asks Laertes to let him explain what happened to Polonius, and promises to hand over the crown to Laertes if, after the explanation, his actions... (full context)
Act 4, scene 7
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Alone with Claudius, Laertes asks why Claudius didn't punish Hamlet for killing Polonius. Claudius answers: First, he loves Gertrude and she's Hamlet's mother; second, Hamlet is loved by... (full context)