This summer I’m planning on teaching the second of my three Summer Shakespeare courses. Accordingly, I’ve been putting together a web site for it, and have been thinking about Shakespeare a good deal in general; in addition, our son recently played Hamlet in Minneapolis, and we were fortunate enough to get to see him in it.
Shakespeare is probably the single most revered author in the English language — the gold standard. He wrote brilliant plays containing intriguing situations, characters, and philosophical problems, of course, but most particularly he was a master of language. His words can still move, transform, and amaze us. Probably for this latter reason in particular, his plays have been mined, ever since they were written, as sources of pithy quotations, aphorisms, and the like.
The mere fact that Shakespeare wrote something, however, does not inoculate it against banal misuse. This is the more likely, inasmuch as Shakespeare is more often revered than read, and more often read than understood. Accordingly, one commonly encounters extracts taken out of context, presented as the wisdom of the ages condensed into lapidary iambic pentameters.
One particularly amusing — and common — example is from Hamlet I.iii: the final advice of the old courtier Polonius to his son Laertes, who is about to take ship to return to Paris:
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.
This is prettily turned, with a certain rhetorical flourish on “true” and “false”. Being true to yourself sounds like a good idea, surely, especially if it leads to being true to others as well. The sentence is so often quoted out of context that one might well encounter it a dozen different places without ever realizing that it was apparently meant to characterize the speaker as either a buffoon or a villain or both.
There are a number of ways to understand Polonius, but none of them should particularly commend him to us. The simplest is as a mere self-important windbag. Surely he is at least that. He is constantly spouting florid phrases without any sense of proportion or context; he’s so wrapped up in his own rhetoric that he’s lost track of content. He distracts himself and derails his own discourse.
He can also plausibly be seen (as David Ball argues in his brilliant little Backwards and Forwards) as a much cagier fellow — perhaps relying on an affected persona of the buffoon to mask the fact that he is a cold behind-the-scenes manipulator, who manages, in the cynical pursuit of his own advancement, to destroy his son, his daughter, and himself, and to steer most of the events of the Danish court into pure disaster.
In either case, however, three lines come as the consummation of a lengthy run of advice, almost all of which tells Laertes how to behave — but having nothing much to do with being true to himself in any sense of the term, either ancient or modern. Much of it has to do with creating an impression upon others — an impression that at least Polonius believes is a false one. Immediately after seeing his son off, he sends out a spy (Reynaldo, in a scene cut from almost every commercial production of the play) to keep an eye on him and find out — largely by slandering Laertes — what he may learn of him that is to his discredit. Polonius is not a trusting man — even so far as his own son (who deserves better) is concerned — and certainly he’s not one to be trusted himself. He is not true to himself; he is not true to anyone else.
That of course does not necessarily vitiate the advice: it probably remains a good idea to be true to oneself and so to others. But taking that as the sum and substance of the matter — a golden apothegm because The Bard said it — is largely to miss its point.
My point here is that any author — whether Shakespeare or anyone else — needs to be read with an eye to the whole. Any author can be the source of extracts that seem lofty and laudable, or reprehensible, without those things having any real relation to what the author was saying. Reading well, and reading charitably, involves pushing past those limitations and engaging with the text itself in context. The reader is the richer for it.