Thursday, September 18, 2014

`Made Artful by Long Commerce with the World'

Secretly, I’ve always felt sympathy for Polonius, the windbag mocked by that other, less critically recognized windbag, Hamlet. Such a reading of the play is unconventional, I know, but the prince is insufferable, a template for today’s over-educated, under-experienced know-it-alls. His posturing and waffling bring about the death of almost every major character in the play, including himself. Hamlet refers to Polonius as “a tedious old fool” but Samuel Johnson, while not ignoring the lord chamberlain’s  failings, thinks otherwise: 

“Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural.” 

This Polonius recalls another aging man with a daughter in jeopardy, King Lear, one of whose daughters, Goneril, says: “Old fools are babes again.” A man “declining into dotage” deserves our pity if not respect. Elsewhere, in The Rambler #50, Johnson writes: 

“To secure to the old that influence which they are willing to claim, and which might so much contribute to the improvement of the arts of life, it is absolutely necessary that they give themselves up to the duties of declining years, and contentedly resign to youth its levity, its pleasures, its frolics, and its fopperies. It is a hopeless endeavour to unite the contrarieties of spring and winter; it is unjust to claim the privileges of age and retain the playthings of childhood.” 

Polonius is a man of affairs, a diplomat and trusted adviser to Claudius. To retain such a position, he has learned to be an applied psychologist, quick to diagnose motives and sniff out treachery, while skilled in flattering his boss. One wishes he spoke less often and gave more thought to his words, but his loyalties, of necessity, are divided among the king, his son and daughter, and himself. Johnson suggests his age may be taking its toll on his gifts. He goes on: 

“Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius.” 

Here is one of Polonius’ speeches to Ophelia, from Act II, Scene 1: 

“That hath made him mad.
I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him. I feared he did but trifle
And meant to wreck thee. But beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king.
This must be known, which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.” 

Johnson praises Polonius’ intelligence in this passage: “This is not the remark of a weak man. The vice of age is too much suspicion. Men long accustomed to the wiles of life cast commonly beyond themselves, let their cunning go further than reason can attend it. This is always the fault of a little mind, made artful by long commerce with the world.” Though probably not aware of the applicability of his words to himself, Polonius’ thinking is original. He is not play-acting, not parroting another’s words. 

In his recent essay on Hamlet, Theodore Dalrymple (a Dr. Johnson for our age) refers to Polonius as “the king’s pompous and verbose adviser.” I might quibble with “pompous” (he has Ophelia and Laertes to think about, after all), but Dalrymple’s conclusions as to the perennial “Hamlet problem” (and, we might add, the Polonius problem) are sound: “Our impatient and hubristic pretense, repeated throughout history, that we fully understand ourselves and others inevitably leads to nemesis.” Shakespeare’s play reminds us that we remain mysteries to ourselves. Hamlet is blind to Hamlet, and Polonius to Polonius. 

Johnson was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709, and died Dec. 13, 1784.

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