You Can’t Soundbite Shakespeare


Example: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” as said by Polonius in Hamlet. What could be a better summation of the modern mindset? And there you have it from the bard himself! Shakespeare is validating whatever it is your little heart desires! Not so fast though. Louis Markos explains:

Poor William Shakespeare. For four centuries, over-eager readers have wanted to pin down the bard as a sensualist or a moralist, a believer or a skeptic, an idealist or a cynic, a materialist or a supernaturalist, a monarchist or a republican. And the list goes on.

A young man reads Macbeth’s words, “[Life] is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing,” and muses, “Will and I share the same bleak view of human existence.” Or a young girl savors every passionate word of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and sees Shakespeare confirming her belief that romantic love excuses all impulsive and rash behavior. What these readers overlook is that Shakespeare himself does not speak these lines, but gives them to characters in particular contexts that militate against their being taken at face value.

Perhaps the most egregious error is made by the college student who discovers in a famous line from Hamlet the sacred formula for a happy life: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Alas, many others besides the college student—a large percentage of Americans, I would submit—have taken these words to heart as a priceless gem of wisdom from the lips of the divine bard.

But, again, they are not spoken by Shakespeare. They are spoken by a pompous and obsequious courtier named Polonius, who tacks them on to the end of a rambling list of clichéd and hackneyed proverbs that have little or no influence on the object of his sermon: his rakish son Laertes. Polonius is by no means a figure through whom Shakespeare would offer good counsel on how to become a noble and virtuous person. On the contrary, Polonius, though not actively evil, stretches truth and justice on the rack of expediency and is not above using his daughter to further his position at court. In being true to himself, Polonius sets in motion the events that lead to the madness and suicide of his daughter, the death of his son, and his own ignominious murder.

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Read the rest of this article over at the Touchstone site.

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