365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

272. Yorick was the fool, not Polonius.

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The loquacious, good-hearted old man from “Hamlet” who suffers an untimely death, Polonius is a man who also suffers from another affliction: the misinterpretation of his character by actors and directors.

It is all too easy to play Polonius in the expected way, and it happens all too often. He has a tendency to ramble on and on, saying six words when one would do, and occasionally finds himself getting off of the track of conversation to deliver asides. Because of this, many choose to portray him as a doddering old fool, a man only a few years away from senility; even worse, some portray him as simply silly and completely inept. Though these choices are valid and even supported by the text in many ways, they are simply not effective when it comes to playing Polonius.

Polonius is noted as being a man who is high in Claudius’s esteem and council, and it stands to reason that he was probably a big part of the advisement of the former King Hamlet. He does, indeed, give great advice from time to time – “to thine own self be true”, for example – and he has even dabbled in a little acting here and there in his youth. It is clear that he can be considered an intellectual, but perhaps one who is not as good as expressing himself verbally as he may be on paper.

The issue that mainly stems from portraying Polonius as a fool is that it stops him from being a sympathetic character. Audiences will see a silly old man whom they can laugh at, whose never-ending ramblings and comedic misunderstandings make him little more than a joke. It makes his death a moment of “Well, he had it coming” rather than the jarring moment it ought to be.

Hamlet is clearly affected by Polonius’s death, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, Polonius was the wrong man to kill and Hamlet must feel incredibly emotional about that, but it is not just because he missed the intended target. In Polonius’s death, lives have been shattered in that instant, and that is what Hamlet reacts to. And that must be what the audience reacts to, or else Ophelia’s madness and the revenge that Laertes seeks makes little sense.

Polonius must be treated as a loveable man, one who is more of an eccentric professor than an aged idiot. The text of “Hamlet” supports the value Polonius has for other characters and the love for him those other characters indeed have. In order for Polonius to truly be understood, he must be played according to this analysis lest his death have no bearing on the tragedy of Denmark.


Written by Caroline Mincks

June 30, 2010 at 7:46 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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