The Polonius Family

Cedric Watts: "If we compare Hamlet with its source..Shakespeare's Hamlet is more familiar action largely co-ordinated by connections, parallelisms and contrasts between intermingled families."

In the play we see two families who are victims as well as perpetrators of revenge. The Polonius family is significant in key scenes and also in the language which the family members use.

 

Watts: "Shakespeare amplifies the plot in ways which multiply ironic linkages and accentuate thematic continuities"

The theme of revenge is central to the play and there are four "cases" of revenge - three involving "living" characters, (Fortinbras, Laertes and Hamlet) and one which is a Classical legend which was the greatest symbol of secular disaster in the Renaissance world, the story of the destruction of Troy and the revenge of Phyrrus, for the death of his father, Achilles, on Priam, the Trojan King. (Hamlet's choice of speech for the Player King, is no accident. The revenge/family motif of the Trojan conflict was well known to the Shakespearean audience, and there was a popular legend that London was in fact founded by Trojan survivors!)

The two "court" families, one Royal and the other in Royal service, are linked initially by Hamlet's love for Ophelia, but as the play develops, these links become more complex and more sinister, until there is a mortal collision which results in death and multiple tragedy.

There is antagonism between Polonius and Hamlet from the outset, as Hamlet sees himself as a victim of Polonius's support of Claudius as King. This adds to the sense of betrayal which he already feels as a result of his mother's actions. Polonius is keen to preserve his position and also displays a mistrust of Hamlet's intentions towards his daughter, forbidding her to see the prince and later using her as bait to ingratiate himself further to Claudius by proving that Hamlet's madness is the result of love. The exchanges between the two are characterised by a tension only partly concealed by humour and sarcasm on Hamlet's part.

Hamlet is a victim of Laertes, too when he mistakenly murders Polonius and provokes Laertes to seek revenge for his dead father and in Ophelia we see Hamlet become a victim to her representation of womankind in the nunnery scene.

Ironically, though, each member of the Polonius family is also a victim of Hamlet; Polonius literally murdered by the Prince, Laertes also killed accidentally in the duel scene and Ophelia driven to madness by Hamlet's cruelty and the death of her father at her lover's hands.

In the revenge motif, we see Laertes and Hamlet linked as lovers of Ophelia, as revengers of murdered fathers, as accomplished courtiers and swordsmen and in the only honest and complete moment of forgiveness as both pardon one another in the duel scene.

 

The Characters of the Polonius Family

Polonius

He is the supreme servant, subordinate to Claudius and orchestrating the accession and the business of the court. His forte is spying and no one is safe from it. He even sends the servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris, to make sure he is not discrediting the family. He is a key supporter of the new regime and will work tirelessly to secure it and his own position within it. He is autocratic in his own household, being quite prepared to sacrifice his daughter's happiness when he suspects Hamlet of dallying with her and then doing a complete about face when he decides that Hamlet's "antic" behaviour is the result of love, and offering Ophelia as bait to convince the King and Gertrude of his conclusion. He sees himself as the pursuer of truth, the father in charge of his family's security and he cautions others to use secrecy as he himself does, to ensure that truth can be discovered. (see the speech to Reynaldo). His greatest characteristic is prolixity, he won't use one word if ten will do, and this provides us with some comic relief as well as irritation from Hamlet and others. In many ways he is the key antagonist to Hamlet, as it is with Polonius that hamlet has most confrontations (Hamlet rarely "faces" Claudius, but seems to seek out Polonius)

 

Ophelia

She is dignified, innocent, gentle and vulnerable, "compassionate and pitiable". Her emblem is tears and her diction is characterised by simplicity, in sharp contrast to her father. She is a victim and her innocence is tarnished when she is cautioned by her father and by her brother about her relationship with Hamlet. There is never any evidence that her behaviour has been inappropriate, but Hamlet's treatment of her in the nunnery scene, when he attacks Gertrude and all women through Ophelia, and later in the mousetrap scene when he treats her in a vulgar and disrespectful way, is a slur on her innocence. She is articulate even in madness, and retains a gentleness which causes even Claudius to show compassion for her suffering. She has very little power or autonomy and her role as a constant and forsaken lover is one of great poignancy.

 

Laertes

He is forceful, ruthless and manipulated by Claudius. He too is a rival of Hamlet and linked to the prince in his love for his sister. He is protective of Ophelia and sees Hamlet as dangerous. there is also an implied rivalry of some standing between Laertes and Hamlet which is revealed in Claudius's speech about Lamord, the Frenchman. Laertes is passionate and ferocious in his defence of his family's honour. The "hugger-mugger" burial of his father and the sparse rites accorded his sister provoke passionate denunciations from him. He is also honourable and manages to redeem himself in his forgiveness of Hamlet before his death.

 

Broken ceremonies

An interesting features of the play is the use of broken and perverted ceremonies, as follows:

Claudius's marriage after the funeral

The return of Old Hamlet from the grave, prevented from entering heaven.

Old Hamlet dies unprepared

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern go to their deaths unprepared

Lover's meeting between Hamlet & Ophelia is public, not secret

Mousetrap play is stopped by the King

Polonius buried hastily

Ophelia's funeral disrupted by unseemly brawl in the grave

The only "honest" ceremony is the forgiveness between Laertes and Hamlet.

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope