Polonius’ Advice to Laertes – Shakespeare – Hamlet

At some point, you must have heard these infamous words:

“This above all, to your own self be true!”

They originate with the bard himself – William Shakespeare.  And “truer” words were never spoken.  If you aren’t being true to yourself – i.e. if you are trying to be someone you aren’t, then you are just not going to be happy.

It is a scene that plays out all the time – a parent gives advice to a child who is heading off for college.  Here is what Polonius had to say before his son, Laertes, set sail to pursue his studies:

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame! The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,  But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.  Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

What say you, readers?  Did Polonius give good advice?  Bad advice?  Discuss in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Polonius’ Advice to Laertes – Shakespeare – Hamlet

  1. Tommy Muncie says:

    I had to learn that speech once. When I was 16 my drama class did a shortened version of Hamlet and I got cast as Polonius. It felt ridiculous to have teenagers performing Shakespeare back then and looking back I still think so now, and part of it was that I simply couldn’t relate to a father figure character in any way – I’m not paternal, don’t have kids now and don’t really want to either. My own father let me work a lot out for myself in life at the kind of age Leartes would be. We played it so that Leartes was the adoring son and listened. If I could play that scene again I’d have Leartes constantly rolling his eyes and wish the old bugger would just stop embarrassing him! If that were a modern father sending his boy off to college it would probably get ‘Daaaad, quit it already!’

    • You’re not the first commenter to provide a story about having to perform Shakespeare in high school. Apparently, kids get forced to perform the Bard’s plays all the time. And yes, a kid rolling his eyes at Polonius as if to say, “Come on, are you going to lecture me all day?” would be a fun take on it.

      I like the speech mainly because it provided us with the advice of “This above all to thine own self be true.” Many people aren’t true to themselves and what they want out of life, those who are true to themselves and have an understanding of who they are usually are the better for it.

  2. gretchenwing says:

    I have always found Polonius’s advice thoroughly hypocritical, since he is a lying, scheming stuffed shirt who spies on his daughter and doesn’t seem bothered that his boss is an obvious murderer. Did Shakespeare intend this irony? Who cares?

    That said, it is, if you don’t consider the source, excellent advice. Just good luck, when you’re 20 figuring out what the hell it means.

    Thanks for following Wing’s World! You had me at Shakespeare. 🙂

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