Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about Shakespeare, not something I do a lot but on this occasion that was the topic at hand.
One of my favorite Shakespearian plays is “Hamlet.” I first read Hamlet because I had to in high school. I will admit that I was decent in school and I understood what I needed to at the time but I would not say I soaked it all in.
The next time I read Hamlet was because I wanted to. I was a little older and a little wiser, and it made a whole heck of a lot more sense the second time around.
There is a long speech in Hamlet by a character named Polonius. Out of this speech some very famous quotes are pulled from. The most famous is “To thine own self be true.”
This quote is in a line from act first scene three. Polonius is King Claudius’ chief minister, and this line is part of a speech where he is giving his son, Laertes, his blessing and advice on how to behave while he is away at college.
This speech contains a number of different well known Shakespeare quotes, such as “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and “The apparel oft proclaims the man.”
Polonius then sums up his advice to his son with, “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 advice that Polonius gives his son Laertes seems to be grounded in good logic. After all, what could be more sound advice than to be careful before speaking out? Or that a person is more likely to keep ok friends if they don’t get into lending or borrowing money to them. The clothes don’t make the man and then the crème de la crème of his advice, being true to oneself is the noblest of aspirations.
“To thine own self be true” was my favorite quote for a long time. I think at some point I had it pinned to my wall at home. I sort of internalized it, and made it words to live my life by. I think a lot of people take that quote and use it as a personal manifesto.
The thing that makes this speech so interesting, aside from the content, is the fact that these words are being said by Polonius.
Polonius is dull and uninteresting. He also obsessively likes to talk about himself, and normally when the play is being staged the characters of his children are in the background mocking him while he talks.
Not only is Polonius dull and uninteresting, but he is pretty much a jerk as well. Right after making this speech, he sends someone to Paris to spy on Laertes. He also spies on his daughter, sets her up for entrapment, interferes with her romantic life, and ultimately contributes to her suicide.
In the end all this great advice that is given in this speech, especially about being true to oneself, coming from Polonius pretty much rings hollow.
I am not sure if it is tribute to Shakespeare or to human kind that more than 400 years later, we have picked out the best parts, disregarded the fact that the guy that said them was a cosmic hypocrite, and we have turned this quote, this “to thine own self be true” into one of the most inspirational quotes of all time.
It’s a quote which screams from the rooftops that you must always be true to yourself, over all the pressures in the world, and if you can do that, then you have attained the ultimate goal.
Perspective is powerful.