As with many plays, actors in Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, are at liberty to alter the portrayal of their characters. Because of this, the significance and subtleties of various characters can be lost in varying adaptations of the play. This holds true for the character Polonius, who is often incorrectly portrayed as a oblivious and foolish yet caring father. Rather, Shakespeare implicitly and explicitly establishes Polonius as a character in full control of his wits. Polonius’ interaction with other characters throughout the play highlights his cunning, wit, and selfishness.
Polonius’ interactions with Hamlet are often the source of misinterpretations that Polonius is a bumbling fool. In every conversation, Polonius appears oblivious to the witty and cruel remarks Hamlet makes in response to his persistent questioning. Even when explicitly called a “fishmonger,” Polonius feigns surprised ignorance and suggests that Hamlet is insane rather than sarcastic (II.ii.187). He appears to continue ignoring Hamlet’s thinly veiled insults even when Hamlet compares Ophelia to “maggots in a dead dog,” assuming that Hamlet is “still harping on [his] daughter” (II.ii.669). However, Polonius is not the “tedious old fool” that he appears to be; just as Hamlet confessed to being “not in madness,/But mad in craft,” Polonius merely feigns stupidity (II.ii.224; III.iv.204-5). By pretending to be clueless, Polonius is able to question and study Hamlet further without suspicion that he is spying, thus emphasizing his deceitful nature.
The unmasking of Polonius as a cunning manipulator instead of a moronic old man also exposes his humor throughout the play. While his remarks are more sublime compared to Hamlet’s, Polonius’ remarks display a comedic tone that contrast with his malevolent actions. His interjection that a speech given by an actor of Hamlet’s play, a speech that illustrates the tragic death of Priam, is “too long” lightens an otherwise depressing scene (II.ii.455). Polonius’ charade of being a fool continues as he discusses the shape of a cloud with Hamlet by agreeing to whatever animal Hamlet proposes the cloud to be, whether it be a “camel,” a “weasel”, or a “whale” (III.ii.331-335). This added comedic nature to Polonius reaffirms the idea that he wittier than often given credit for.
Polonius’ wit, coupled with his inclination towards deceit and espionage, emphasize the notion that he represents a dramatic foil for Claudius in the play. While both characters are father figures and share similar motives, their courses of action differ significantly. Polonius attempts to avoid confrontation and merely remain the...