Your wife dies. You raise two children by yourself. You build a great career to provide for your family. You send your son off to college in another country, even though you know he’s not ready. Now the prince wants to marry your daughter—that’s not easy to navigate. Then—get this—while you’re trying to save the queen’s life, the prince murders you. Your death destroys your kids. They die tragically. And what do you get for your troubles? Centuries of Shakespeare scholars dumping on you.
Many echo Prince Hamlet’s characterization of Polonius as a “tedious old fool” and “foolish prating knave.” In 1736, the first essay ever written on Hamlet called Polonius a “Buffoonish Statesman.” Samuel Johnson saw an old man “declining into dotage.” William Hazlitt thought Polonius “talks very sensibly” but “acts very foolishly.” Closer to our time, Diane Dreher hated Polonius—“by far the most reprehensible father” in Shakespeare’s plays—but for a different reason. He’s a patriarch, a misogynist, an authoritarian who dominates Ophelia’s will and decimates her verve for life. “The death of Polonius,” Elaine Robinson argues, “is a symbol of Shakespeare’s attack on patriarchy.”
Polonius isn’t a good father. Good fathers don’t make good drama. But he is a good character, more complex than critics usually recognize. Polonius is a single father struggling with work-life balance who sadly choses his career over his daughter’s well-being. His circumstances parallel challenges common to twenty-first-century parenting. If we consider him from that vantage rather than through the eyes of his enemy, Prince Hamlet—the point of view Shakespeare asks us to adopt—we open the door to other modern resonances of family dynamics in Shakespeare, such as Prince Hamlet’s rocky stepfamily.
* * *
Hamlet hints at Polonius’s possible prehistories. His name points to Poland, Denmark’s enemy, especially in light of the change of the character’s name from the “Corambis” of the first quarto. However and whyever that change occurred, Shakespeare must have realized that the second scene of his play introduces “Polonius” shortly after the first scene relates the story of how King Hamlet “in an angry parle … smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.” There are two possibilities.
Perhaps “Polonius” simply means “one from Poland,” identifying him as an immigrant. If so, whether he came before or after the episode on the ice, Polonius would have suffered xenophobic hostility from Danish nationalists. Maybe, like my childhood friend—a refugee from a war-torn country—he cultivated a clownish persona that masked his trauma.
Or Polonius could be an honorary name bestowed for his military service, like “Coriolanus,” the name given to Caius Marcius for conquering Corioli. This Polonius served Denmark, may have switched allegiances from the Poles to the Danes, or perhaps secretly engineered the bloody “parle.” Such deviousness fits with Polonius’s plotting in Hamlet.
The only clear backstory Shakespeare gave is that Polonius was an actor at university. Drama attracts certain kinds of students: soulful, gregarious, eager for an audience. Polonius played the part of Julius Caesar, associating him not with the secret plotter—“Brutus killed me”—but with a political leader. He fancies himself a literary critic, and his try-hard erudition when commenting on the players smacks of someone enamored with academia, but outside of it.
It’s unclear when and how Polonius met his wife—Ophelia and Laertes’s mother—but she seems to be dead. Laertes alludes to her—the play’s only reference—late in the fourth act:
That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries ‘Cuckold!’ to my father, brands the harlot
Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brow
Of my true mother.
When Laertes says “even here,” he points to his forehead, between his two “[eye]brow[s].” His brow looks like his mother’s brow. That could create a bond between Polonius, who lost his wife, and Laertes, who looks like her. Was she from Poland? Did she know Polonius at school? Was she an outsider in Denmark, maybe from southern Europe? Is that why their children have Greek and Roman names? Did she die giving birth to Ophelia? Or later? Do her children remember her? How did they process their grief?
Laertes and Ophelia are close, a bond likely forged after their mother’s death. There’s a lot of trust there. They are playful and affectionate.
Perhaps a grieving Polonius threw himself into his job, climbing the ranks of King Hamlet’s council to become the lead advisor to Denmark’s royal family. The very first thing the play tells us about Polonius comes from Claudius speaking to Laertes: “The head is not more native to the heart, / The hand more instrumental to the mouth, / Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.” Claudius loves Polonius, listens to him, hangs on his words, follows his advice. That kind of trust must be earned. Maybe Polonius was in on the assassination.
* * *
The hints of Polonius’s prehistory create context for when we meet the man. I read his verbosity as dad jokes. Filled with puns and wordplay, dad jokes are cheesy, corny, cringe, clean, not dangerous. I’m hungry. Hi Hungry—I’m Polonius. Dad jokes appeal to young children, who quickly outgrow them. They make people roll their eyes and shake their heads in embarrassment. This kind of humor isn’t funny in its own right. It’s funny because there’s a self-awareness that it’s not funny. The comedy comes in the affected oafishness of the teller, who makes himself available to be the butt of the joke. “Tender yourself more dearly,” Polonius says to Ophelia, “Or—not to crack the wind of the poor phrase / Wronging it thus—you’ll tender me a fool.” Dad jokes aren’t meant to be funny as much as they signal the presence of a caring, safe relationship. That’s why, though obnoxious, they’re also endearing. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Polonius says in a long speech to Gertrude. “I will be brief.” Polonius is self-aware in these moments. He’s not an incompetent fool. He’s making fun of himself, using self-deprecating humor strategically to build relationships. He’s in on the joke.
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Any father would struggle sending a son with a penchant for youthful rebellion off to college. Polonius knows that Laertes has risk factors. He’s a kid who lost his mother, experienced trauma, processed it by forming close bonds with his remaining family, is a bit of a hot head, and likes to party. It’s time for Laertes to become his own man, but the freedom that comes abroad without familial safeguards gives Polonius pause. Above all, Polonius wants Laertes to know that he’s got a caring, loving family back home. They’ve been through a lot together. They understand each other. The “to thine own self be true” speech is one long dad joke.
Polonius sends money and letters to Laertes through their family friend Reynaldo—solid dad move—but it’s also a chance to spy on Laertes because Polonius actually doesn’t trust his son. The weird plan Polonius develops—before seeing Laertes, Reynaldo will ask about him around town, making up stories that make Laertes look bad to get people to share their own tales of the boy’s exploits—points to Polonius’s tendency to overlook how his actions harm his children’s well-being.
Ophelia is coming of age. She doesn’t have her mom to talk to. Her brother has moved out. Her dad works all the time. That’s how Ophelia starts spending time with Hamlet. He recently lost a parent himself. Ophelia knows what it’s like. And now they’re in love. But Hamlet’s still processing. Frankly, he’s not in a good place. I don’t know what I’d do if the off-kilter heir to the crown declared his love for my daughter: that’s a tough spot.
Polonius is worried about Ophelia—he doesn’t want her to get hurt—but fathers have no idea what it’s like to be a young woman. He wants to protect her. He also wants to protect himself. He fears the relationship with Hamlet will go south and complicate his career in the castle. He comes down hard on Ophelia—too hard. He’s controlling, dismissive, degrading, telling her to think of herself as a baby: his baby. He knows she’s becoming a woman, but he doesn’t know that the power-shouting he used to keep Ophelia from playing on the castle walls when she was a girl comes across completely differently now. This is Romeo and Juliet territory.
Polonius didn’t invent the patriarchy. He just knows how to survive it. It’s clearly a situation where a conversation with his daughter about her feelings and options would be best. Polonius is ill-equipped for that approach.
Hamlet ends up being a massive asshole. He uses Ophelia to convince everyone he’s crazy, and it shakes her to her core. Polonius’s response—“I am sorry”—is surprisingly moving. He apologizes a second time: “I am sorry that with better heed and judgment / I had not quoted him.” Polonius should have seen it coming. Her mother would have known what to do.
Let’s hope most fathers wouldn’t put their job ahead of the welfare of their child, though we see that all the time. Polonius needs his job to support his family. Tragically, that leads him to harm his family. He uses Ophelia as bait to spy on Hamlet for Claudius. Hamlet berates her. Polonius sits there and watches. What kind of parent wouldn’t intervene? Wouldn’t comfort his daughter? Instead, he talks with Claudius about matters of state.
Polonius ends up giving his life for his job. While hiding in the queen’s bedchamber, he hears Hamlet attacking his mother. “What wilt thou do?” she cries. “Thou wilt not murder me? / Help, ho!” Polonius tries to save her: “What ho! Help!” He’s killed by an unhinged aristocrat who then plays sick games with the dead body: “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room.” The Shakespeare scholars who adopt Hamlet’s view of Polonius are cozying up to an unstable murderer.
Polonius’s death breaks his children. The absence of their mother makes this fresh loss even tougher. Ophelia deteriorates into a mental health crisis. She commits suicide. Laertes is driven to violence that results in his death. Where do our sympathies lie now?
* * *
In 2002, Catharine R. Stimpson suggested that there are many Poloniuses in society today, the mansplaining pundits on cable news:
He is, I have decided, a powerful figure in a large institution, preferably the executive branch of the federal government. However, he moves easily among institutions. He can work in the private sector or a think tank or a public policy school in an affluent private university. When he is not in the government, and is instead rusticating in the private sector, he likes being a pundit. In that role, he enjoys writing op-ed pieces and going on television.
There is the public figure that Stimpson describes and the private Polonius I have sought to recover. He’s not a good father. I hate his patriarchal parenting. Yet if push came to shove, and I had to pick which of the parents in Hamlet I would want as my own, it would be Polonius.
King Hamlet asks his son to murder someone; this destroys the child’s life. Queen Gertrude is a mother who marries her dead husband’s brother, then is baffled that her son is struggling. King Claudius is a stepfather only because he killed his stepson’s biological father. Shakespeare filled the play with terrible parents.
On the one hand, each parent in the play puts their career first, resulting in the destruction of the family. On the other hand, the Hamlet family is weirdly relatable—given the prevalence and dynamics of stepfamilies nowadays. If Polonius’s arc shows what can happen when a family loses a parent, the Hamlets’ demonstrate the negotiation of new family dynamics in the wake of separation and remarriage. That’s all in play before the murder of King Hamlet comes to light. The inferred backstories of each parent contextualize their approach to parenting.
King Hamlet is the divorced father who hates seeing his ex-wife with a new man; he uses his child as leverage in a power play against her. Queen Gertrude is the single mother who wants to feel romantic love for the first time in a while but fails to appreciate how her new life affects her child’s emotions. And King Claudius is the new stepfather who just wants everyone to be happy; he tries to relate to his stepson but finds himself in an emotionally combustible situation.
The impulse is to say, Oh, Shakespeare’s families are so modern. It’s probably better to note that the term “non-traditional family” is absurd as literature and history are filled with single parents and stepfamilies in which the challenges of work-life balance are heightened—and everyone’s a critic.
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