Wednesday, September 8, 2010

to thine ownself be true

I confess...the subject line of this post is said with an ironic smirk. I've been playing with a few topics in my head late at night (insomnia is fun) and I'm going with this one (in part b/c I need something other than bulletpoints and me-centered rambles).

I recently read a book that took a lot from Hamlet which made me revisit my own thoughts on the play. It was an element of my senior thesis...Restoring Lavina's Tongue: Shakespearean Silence from Nullification to Communication...but that's not what I'm rambling about today. Rather, today's topic is evil and danger.

I have always held that the most dangerous character in Hamlet is not Claudius, the murdering uncle (sorry if I'm spoiling...Shakespeare is about the words and not just the story so still experience it yourself). Yeah, he's bad and all that, but I think the danger is really Polonius, the weaselly little yes-man who lends support to whomever holds the power. Polonius is the unthinking majority and it is that crowd that allows a Claudius to become powerful. To analogize, Hitler was a horrid and evil man, but it was the willing public that gave him strength.

I've argued this point with a few intelligent peers over the years and haven't found many who agree when the Hamlet example is used...but do agree with the thought in other contexts. There's a lot of literary (and historical) support for the dangerous majority. It has been a long time since I read it, but that seems to me the message of 1984. I did recently reread Farenhiet 451 and that's definitely the message there..."Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord."

That's Part One of Cheryl on Polonius. Part Two turns to the subject line of this post. I'd wager that some of the most quoted lines in the English language come from Polonius's speeches to his son. I'm a lover of quotes...I had them on my wall in college when everyone else had posters and photos and I used to have a large notecard box filled with them. But I do think that quoting fiction (versus an essay or speech) presents an extra challenge. I am fairly certain that Shakespeare is presenting Polonius's lines with a bit of a mocking intent. He's spewing out canned advice in place of real parenting. Polonius is again being a conformist and speaking in pure cliche. Not that cliche can't have value...I'll admit it can. I just think it is misplaced to consider the lines to be Shakespearian wisdom.

And I can happily come full circle. Because quoting Polonius is a bit of a conformist act...quoting the line because it is Shakespeare without thinking about what Shakespeare thought. Which makes this post nice and self-contained and makes the OCD side of me quite pleased.

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