Polonius is a character from William Shakespeare's Hamlet. The character is best known for uttering the immortal words: "To thine own self be true," as well as a few other phrases still in use today such as "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" and "brevity is the soul of wit."


Father of Ophelia and Laertes, and adjunct to King Claudius, he is described as a windbag by some and a rambler of wisdom by others. It has also been suggested that he only acts like a "foolish prating knave" in order to keep his position and popularity safe and to keep anyone from discovering his plots for social advancement. It is important to note that throughout the play, Polonius is characterized as a typical Renaissance courtier, who pays much attention to appearances and ceremonious behavior. Some adaptations show him conspiring with Claudius in the murder of King Hamlet, although Shakespeare himself gives no indication of this.

Polonius's most famous lines are found in Act 1, Scene 3, when he gives advice to his son Laertes, who is leaving for France, in the form of sententious maxims. He finishes by giving his son his blessing, and is apparently at ease with his son's departure. However, in Act 2, Scene 1, he orders his servant Reynaldo to travel to Paris and obtain information about whether Laertes is involved in vice there.

Laertes is not the only character that Polonius spies on. He is fearful that Hamlet's relationship with his daughter will hurt his reputation with the king and instructs Ophelia to "lock herself from [Hamlet's] resort." He later develops the belief that Ophelia's rejections of Hamlet's affections have caused the prince to lose his wits, and tells this to Gertrude and Claudius, claiming that his reason for commanding Ophelia to reject Hamlet was that Hamlet was above her station. He tests his theory with spying and interrogations.

In his last attempt to spy on Hamlet, Polonius hides himself behind an arras in Gertrude's room. Hamlet deals roughly with his mother, causing her to cry for help. Polonius repeats the request for help and is heard by Hamlet, who stabs through the arras and kills him.

The death of Polonius causes Claudius to fear for his life, Ophelia to go mad, and Laertes to seek his revenge.


Israel Gollancz first proposed that the source for the name and sententious platitudes of Polonius (Latin for "Polish") was De optimo senatore, a book on statesmanship by the Polish courtier Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki, which was translated into English in 1598 under the title "The Councellor". Gollancz also suggested that Queen Elizabeth's first minister, the recently deceased William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was being caricatured as Polonius, on the grounds that there were similarities in the recorded characters of the two men. Both suggestions have been widely repeated, but also disputed.

Polonius may not have been the original name of the character. In the first quarto of Hamlet, Polonius is named "Corambis" (meaning "warmed-up cabbage" in Latin).

Stage and film portrayals

In most productions of the 20th century, up to about 1980, Polonius was played as a somewhat senile, garrulous man of about seventy-five or so, and those productions sometimes got a few laughs out of the character's depiction. More recent productions have tended to make him slightly younger, and to emphasise his shiftiness rather than any so-called senility. This harks back to the traditional way Polonius has been played. Until the 1900s there was a tradition for the actor who plays Polonius to also play that most famous of quick-witted clowns, the grave digger in Act V. This bit gives some evidence that the actor who played Polonius was an actor used to playing clowns much like the Fool in King Lear: not a doddering old fool, but an alive and intelligent master of illusion and misdirection.

One key to the portrayal is a producer's decision to keep or remove the brief scene with his servant, Reynaldo, which comes after his scene of genial, fatherly advice to Laertes. He instructs Reynaldo to spy on his son, and even suggest that he has been gambling and consorting with prostitutes, in order to find out what he has really been up to. The inclusion of this scene portrays him in a much more sinister light; most productions, including Laurence Olivier's famous 1948 film version, choose to remove it. The respective productions starring Richard Burton and Kenneth Branagh both include it. Although Hume Cronyn plays Polonius mostly for laughs in the Burton production, Polonius is more sinister than comic in Branagh's version. The recent 2008 version of the play from the Australian company Bell Shakespeare portrays him as a rambling fool.

It is suspected that Zazu from The Lion King is based on this character (The Lion King was based on Hamlet).

Famous lines

  • Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel but, being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower, nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
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 (I, iii)

  • "Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,/ and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: your noble son is mad." (II, ii)
  • "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." (II, ii) (the source of the common phrase "there is a method to my madness")
  • "That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity; And pity 'tis 'tis true." (II, ii)
  • "Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,/ but not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;/ For the apparel oft proclaims the man." (I, iii)
  • "Oh, I am slain!" (III, iv)

Notable Portrayals

  • Hume Cronyn won a Tony Award for playing Polonius opposite Richard Burton's Hamlet in John Gielgud's 1964 Broadway production. No other actor has ever won an award for playing Polonius in any American stage version of Hamlet, nor for playing him in a film version of the play.
  • Phil Silvers did a memorable send-up of Polonius' "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech in a Gilligan's Island episode, playing a producer who does a musical version of Hamlet while on the island.
  • Actors who have played Polonius on film and television include Bill Murray, Ian Holm, Michael Redgrave, and Richard Briers.
  • In the Play Omlette Chef of Denmark Polonius is the third biggest character and in the play he says "Kiss me Kate" "Brevity is the soul of wit" and "Neither a Burrower nor a Mender be" Making fun of his most famous Quote


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