To Thine Own Self, Be True

Polonius’ advice to Laertes is a father’s advice to his son. Whilst the judgements of Polonius throughout Hamlet are at least questionable, see the Wikipedia entry, his advice is nevertheless excellent. Polonius gives this advice as his son is due to depart for the big city of Paris.

You can read the full address here: Polonius Advice to Laertes. However, below is my own paraphrase of Polonius’ advice.

Still here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for the wind sits in the shoulder of your sail and the ship waits for you. My blessing goes with you.

Now see that you remember these principles:

  1. Keep your thoughts to yourself and don’t act without thinking.
  2. Be friendly, but not vulgar.
  3. Anchor your true friends to your soul with hoops of steel.
  4. Don’t waste your money on entertaining new, unproven friends.
  5. Beware of getting into a fight, but if you can’t avoid it, give a good account of yourself.
  6. Listen to each man’s opinion, but reserve your judgment.
  7. Buy the best clothes for the clothes often tell what kind of man you are.
  8. Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
  9. This above all, to thine own self be true and you cannot then be false to any man.

With these words ringing in his ears, Laertes departs.

Was the advice good advice or not? Well, personally, I really like fizzyperm‘s short commentary on the passage:

While waiting for Laertes ship to depart, Polonius has a couple of minutes to tell him how to live well. His brief advice is shrewd and parental. He tells Laertes to think before he acts, listen more than talk, keep good friends close but don’t worry about drinking buddies. Don’t get in fights, watch your money, take care of your appearance, but don’t be a peacock etc. All sensible stuff.

Then he knocks out a Shakespearean pearl. “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Most people seem to think ‘to thine own self be true’ just means ‘be yourself’ and obviously it does mean that. But I think Polonius (Shakespeare) is aiming much higher level than a trite ‘hey … be the real you, kid’. He is really saying, “The person who lies to you the most often is … you. Be aware of the lies and distortions and half-truths that you tell yourself about yourself.”

It is a wonderful observation that our own character can sometimes get in the way of our proper understanding of a situation. Learning that we sometimes manage to deceive ourselves is an excellent life lesson. This knowledge alone can enable us to question our own perspectives in our search for the truth in any given situation.

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