Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Conversation with Polonius

By Lisabet Sarai

Felix Aylmer as Polonius in Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet", 1948

“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.”

The old man shook a gnarled finger at me. His snowy beard wagged as he gulped for air, somewhat overcome by his own animation.

“Good Polonius,” I say, helping him to a velvet-upholstered armchair. “I thank you for your advice. But if we all followed such precepts, what kind of world would we have? A me-first sort of place, full of ego and ambition. No one would hesitate to take advantage of his fellows in order to further his own goals. Violence, cruelty, indifference—to an even greater extent than we already have.”

“Nay, child, 'tis not so. Although I am known as a taciturn and reticent individual, a man of few words who would never vaunt his wisdom or pretend to superior understanding, I cannot refrain from enlightening you and demonstrating the validity of my counsel.”

“Indeed, sir, I wait upon your explanation.” It occurs to me to wonder why I've adopted such antiquated speech patterns, but then, I'm easily influenced. When I visit my relatives in South Carolina, I find myself unconsciously adopting a southern accent. When I'm in New York City, I'm often mistaken for a native.

“As you have truly observed, the world is a sorry place, rife with horrific crimes against God and society that sadden and sicken the hearts of virtuous men such as I. The hard-won wealth of industrious men is squandered and pilfered by perfidious financiers. Did I not say, neither a borrower nor a lender be? Headless bodies are unearthed, the scourge of the undeclared wars between rival purveyors of addictive intoxicants. Every day, it seems, we hear tell of some misguided fanatic hoist with his own petard, taking scores of innocents to hell along with him.

"Some would argue that the perpetrators of such evil deeds suffer from an excess of self-love. In pursuing personal goals, be it glory, riches or power, the villains care not whom they deprive of life or livelihood. Their overarching egoism permits any injury to another. The desires and dreams of others matter not a whit should such desires stand in opposition to the criminal's objectives.”

“Exactly my point.” I slip in my comment as the elderly Dane is gathering his breath for another paragraph or two. “Self-love leads to many ills.”

“You are deluded, daughter, if I may be allowed to say so. I believe that every individual is entitled to hold his or her opinion, however ridiculous, and it is not my place to correct him. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice, that is my motto. Nevertheless I cannot allow you to persist in such an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

“Yes, sir?” I know I will receive enlightenment whether I agree with him or not.

“These vile creatures who are responsible of the crimes of which we speak, do you think they love themselves? I will be brief. These persons are propelled not by self-appreciation but by self-doubt, inadequacy, an insufficient regard for their own worth which drives them to try and prove that they are better than their peers. It matters not how often they triumph, how full their coffers, how many they slay. No deed, however marvelous or vicious, can assuage their deep-buried convictions of their own worthlessness.”

“So you are of the opinion that self-love engenders virtue rather than vice?”

The elder's cheeks were pink with exertion. He gestured with such energy that, had he a sword, he might well have cut me to the quick.

“I would represent my position not as mere opinion, a bauble to be tossed about in the tavern by drunken wastrels, but as manifest truth. Think on it: what said our Lord Jesus Christ? 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'”

“Sir, I do not think it is advisable to descend into religious arguments on this blog...”

“This is not religion, you green girl, 'tis merely common sense. How is it possible to be considerate, compassionate, generous, if one is not at one's own ease? How can I care for my neighbor unless I care for myself? Kindness toward others is the fruit of self-love, as are respect and affection.

"If you suffer from the belief of that you are inferior, others appear only as threats. Their accomplishments and their worldly possessions accuse you. Voracious envy gnaws your heart. Suspicion clouds your eyes. Believing that you have little, you live in fear that it will be taken from you. Suffering from a sense of lack, you attack those who enjoy the blessings of which you feel you have been deprived.”

“Self-love protects a man from this curse. Knowing one's worth, one can appreciate the worthy deeds of one's fellows. A man who is true to himself can afford to be even-tempered, tolerant, charitable. He can follow my oft-repeated maxim: take every man's censure, but reserve thy judgment. He can share his bounty, loving his neighbor as the Scriptures dictate, because he is confident that no one can deprive him of the love he bears himself.”

Despite his volubility, the old man made some sense. “Well...”

“Think on thine own case, wench. You are a scribbler, I believe, penning fantastic tales for the ignorant masses.”

“Well, I'd like to imagine that my readers are not ignorant...”

“No matter, that is not the meat of the matter. I have heard that you are quite willing to help other authors, are you not? You write peer reviews, offer critiques, share information on opportunities for promulgating news of their activities and for disseminating their own scribbles, and so on, do you not?”

“Um—yes, but I don't see...”

“I beg you not to interrupt your elders, girl, when they are attempting to share their hard-won wisdom!”

“Sorry. I offer my apologies, good Polonius.”

“I accept them graciously as is my wont. Beware of entrance to a quarrel, I always say. Where was I? Oh yes. You are moderately generous with your time and your energy. You do not feel that these other authors are your enemies, do you?”

“No, of course not! I am happy to provide assistance where I can. Many people have helped me. It is only just that I reciprocate, maintaining the flow of positive deeds.”

“You do not envy other authors' success?”

“Perhaps a bit, but I know that in most cases they have worked hard to achieve what renown they may claim.”

“And what do you think about your own writing ability?”

“Well, to be honest, I have a fairly high opinion of my work. I know that I am not a great artist – I will never be a William Shakespeare – but when the inspiration hits, I can write a spicy tale that entertains.”

“You see, you love yourself. You believe yourself to be worthy, in the realm of your writing at least. This allows you to share your time with other writers without feeling threatened. You are true to yourself and hence you cannot be false to your fellows.”

“Hmm. I suppose that you may be right, sir.”

“Of course I am right. Videlicet, a sage, well-tempered in the ways of men, bearing the benedictions of age along with its burdens. But the king calls me, no doubt to solicit my counsel. I must hasten to his chamber. Farewell, Lisabet, and remember well what I have said to you.”

“'Tis in my memory locked, and you yourself shall keep the key to it.”

“Good girl.”

“But Polonius, sir, if I might offer you some advice of my own...”

“What is it, child? Be brief.”

“Do not be too curious or eager to spy. And stay away from the arras.”


  1. Hi Lisabet,

    A great blog by any other name would smell as sweet...

    I had the pleasure of seeing Hamlet last year. It was an RSC production (in Stratford-on-Avon) with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius.

    However, it was Polonius who stole the show for me. Played by an actor called Oliver Ford-Davies (a former writer turned actor) he commanded the stage whenever he was on and had the audience in fits of giggles.



  2. Hi, Ash,

    I was in fits of giggles writing this...!

    Thanks for your comments.


  3. Lisabet!

    You've studied your Shakespeare! I see so many things laced through here Polonius said. It's really good. Really unique. I like the point that you brought out about Jesus saying love your neighbor as yourself and how the inverse is true - if you hate yourself you will likely hate your neighbor.

    I'm also very glad I wrote my blog in a different direction, because you;ve expressed most of what I would have said on the subject of self-loving in the non-physical sense. If I had stuck with my first draft I'd be stuffing it in the shredder and crying right now because I couldn;t match what you;ve written here. It's really good.


  4. Hey, Garce,

    I wrote this with you in mind... I knew that you at least would appreciate it. You know Shakespeare far better than I.

    Looking forward to your Wednesday words.


  5. I guess I've never seen Polonius' advice in that light, meaning self-love. "To thine own self be true," I always interpreted as not being false to your true feelings, avoiding hypocrisy and regret. Ironic coming from the man who embodies those very vices, but Shakespeare often put wise words into the mouths of fools.

    I love to see your confidence in your ability. It's often difficult for women to be confident. We're taught to dissemble and blush. Don't sell yourself short: Shakespeare was not writing for the ages. He was writing to entertain an audience that included people who wanted the fights and bawdy humour as well as those who wanted piety and philosophy. He packed it all into the plays and packed the Rose and the Globe. If he were alive today, he'd be writing for television and movies because above all, he wanted an audience.

    To thine own self be true, indeed!

  6. What a great post! Have always wanted to write something sexy about the characters in Shakespeared -- and turn some of the tragic endings into happy ones!

  7. Hi, CM,

    Okay, I admit I twisted Polonius' meaning a bit to fit the topic.

    I'm not always feeling confident. Sometimes I will be in the middle of a writing session and I will be sure that every word I've put down is sh*t. However, I can't let that stop me. Every writer, I believe, feels that way at times--even the ones who were truly great.


  8. Hi, Carol,

    Actually Hamlet has never been my favorite play, except for Ophelia's madness.

    I like "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" -- the baudy stuff!


  9. Lisabet - "I'm not always feeling confident. ... Every writer, I believe, feels that way at times--even the ones who were truly great."


    Even Shakespeare got the blues. This is Sonnet 29:

    1. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
    2. I all alone beweep my outcast state,
    3. And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
    4. And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
    5. Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    6. Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
    7. Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
    8. With what I most enjoy contented least;
    9. Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
    10. Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
    11. Like to the lark at break of day arising
    12. From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
    13. For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
    14. That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


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