Judging from the response to my last piece on misunderstood Shakespeare quotations, quite a few of you find them some combination of intriguing and infuriating. The further they get from their apparent meaning in the original works the more notable they become, as we see people taking Shakespeare’s words to justify their opinions, or add weight to their judgements. This post is a Polonius Special, dedicated to one of the knottier and more absorbing examples of Shakespeare misapplied.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be…
…or indeed anything from that bit of Hamlet. The courtier’s speech of advice to his son Laertes has lent the sheen of Shakespearean authority to a handful of proverbs: “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice”, “Take each mans censure but reserve thy judgement”, that clothes should be “rich, not gaudy” and of course that one should “neither a borrower nor a lender be” (though in the latest Arden edition, Thompson and Taylor suggest following the Quarto reading “neither a borrower nor a lender, boy,”) I must admit to thinking in my younger years that “rich, not gaudy” was a quotation from Hancock’s Half Hour, which I feel should be interpreted as proving how far this speech has spread through popular literature, rather than proving that I am a plank. These phrases crop up in everyday conversation, in books on money management, and on posters of the “inspirational” variety.
This is a particularly striking example, since none of these uses technically involve misquoting the lines or misunderstanding what the character meant by them. Unlike Juliet’s “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or Hamlet’s “Alas poor Yorrick, I knew him [well]”, the words being quoted mean roughly what Polonius meant by them. Namely that one should avoid debt, have a few trusted friends and prefer M&S to Primark. They’re clearly intended as advice, and you can’t even argue that they’re been pulled out of the context of that speech, because Polonius begins by saying “And these few precepts in thy memory/ Look thou character [record]”.
In other words, he points out that what he’s about to say should be broken down into its constituent parts and applied to situations in the future. These are clearly proverbs, presenting abstract ideas to be recognized in concrete instances. They also display the curiously unhelpful double structure which both John Barton and Richard Hoggart have identified in proverbial statements, in that they seem to hedge their bets by advising against both too much and too little of each value. Just as “many hands make light work” and “too many cooks spoil the broth” seem to cancel each other out into a general “have just enough people for a job”, the strictures on being “rich not gaudy” and “familiar but by no means vulgar” don’t provide absolute guides for conduct. Instead they identify a quality (costliness in clothes, friendliness in conversation) and advise the listener to apply moderation. So Polonius’ words sound like proverbs, have the structure of proverbs, and are quoted by people as if they’re proverbs.
The problem is that Shakespeare didn’t seem to mean them as proverbs. Or, since it’s generally risky (and unproductive) territory to talk about what Shakespeare the writer intended, the structure of Hamlet doesn’t frame them as snippets of wisdom for life. Polonius is often interpreted onstage and in criticism as an old-fashioned, slightly fussy courtier with an inflated opinion of his own wisdom. For years Polonius was a comic role, and in modern productions we often see him portrayed as slightly ineffectual or out of his depth. Certainly the world of murder, conspiracy and chaos which Hamlet presents can’t be navigated by the kind of sincerity and moderation which these proverbs suggest. They are demonstrably inadequate in the face of the violent complexities of Elsinore. They’re not even Polonius’ idea: Thompson and Taylor point out that the speech is stuffed full of commonplace aphorisms which have up to twenty close parallels in other sources from the time. These “few precepts” are the flaccid common currency of Early Modern wannabe sages.
This seems to undermine their value when quoted today: if Polonius is an ineffectual old fool, and his speech is only a compilation of old sayings anyway, quoting it as advice hardly makes any sense. But in fact this might bolster a sense that Polonius’ words are being used correctly – or authentically, or justifiably – when they appear on an inspirational poster. After all, if they are recognisably proverbial sayings which Shakespeare borrowed for his scene, citing them as such is perfectly reasonable. They were part of the common stock of wisdom (AKA the platitudes cache), made a guest appearance in Hamlet, and then returned to being little aphoristic nuggets up for anyone’s grabs.
But would we cite them if they hadn’t appeared in Hamlet? We might agree that they are free-floating insightoids which mean exactly what they say (even if Polonius deployed them badly that one time at Danecamp), but isn’t their presence in our language dependent on being a “Shakespeare quotation”, however distantly and vaguely? That’s not a question I can settle, though presumably one could conduct a rough set of investigations by finding other proverbial sayings which appeared in the sources where Polonius got his zingers, and tracing their appearance (or non-appearance) in modern speech. That would give us a better sense of whether Shakespeare had boosted their signal significantly by using them. Or, to try a better metaphor, whether Hamlet acted as an efficient means of verbal transport to carry these phrases from the speech of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Londoners to our own.
However, this would ignore the trickiest point which I think the Polonius example raises: what is the assumed value of a distant Shakespeare quotation? What do we think we’re doing when we quote Shakespeare, or use a phrase which sounds Shakespearean-ish? Are we making a claim that the Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived (TM) agrees with us? Then these paper pellets of the Polonius brain are illegitimate. Are we simply borrowing something very well phrased and weighty on the tongue which we heard somewhere and which seems apt? Then they’re entirely fair game. Or are we calling on the cultural value associated with the archaic-sounding vocabulary and grammar of the Early Modern period? Are we citing something that, because it sounds “Olde-Worlde”, carries a greater (or different) charge than if we cited, say a French phrase or a line of Oscar Wilde? The occasions on which you hear a phrase of the King James Bible misattributed to Shakespeare – or vice versa – suggests that there is a particular heft which we attach to the language of that era, because of the sources of authority which are couched in it. Are we quoting these proverbs because they sound like proverbs, or because they sound like Shakespeare? Which sounds more like wisdom in the twenty-first Shakespeare? Polonius is such a knotty example of Shakespeare misapplied because he makes us pose questions about what quoting Shakespeare actually entails – what claims it makes, and what kinds of value it purports to convey or reproduce.