Three Notes on Polonius: Position, Residence and Name
Shakespeare Bulletin 20.2 (Spring 2002): 5-7
Shakespeare gives Hamlet good reason to scorn Polonius: the counselor colludes with the new king, he prevents Ophelia from seeing him, his very nature as a tedious politician offends Hamlet. Since Polonius is useful in the structure of the play (his death forces the denouement) as well as in the characterization of others (notably the king, Hamlet, Laertes, and Ophelia), examining some long-held opinions about his position at Court, his place of residence, and his name may yield new possibilities.
Polonius’s Position at Court
The play does not tell us much about Polonius’s history. Many infer that Polonius had been the counselor of Hamlet’s father, and, if he were, that would suggest another motive for Hamlet’s dislike: the old man’s easy shift in loyalty. A more attractive idea to me is that the counselor had been part of Claudius’s Court. There is support for the notion of royals having their own Courts, their own Courtiers and followers.1
If such arrangements were common knowledge (“What great ones do the less will prattle of,” TN
1.2.33), then Shakespeare would not have had to be explicit. Polonius suggests that he long been Claudius’s counselor when he says:
Hath there been such a time, I would faine know that,
That I haue positiuely said, tis so,
When it proou’d otherwise? (Q2, TLN 1183-5)
If Polonius had been Claudius’s counselor, it is understandable that he is among those who advised Claudius to take the throne and the widow (TLN 192-4).
Since the 1676 Quarto— the first edition to list “The Persons Represented”— named Polonius “Lord Chamberlain,” most editors have followed suit. But there is no good reason to continue to give him that title. The early texts, which have no dramatis personae, never refer to him as anything but a counselor. The first relevant scene heading in the Second Quarto names him as one of the “Counsaile” convened to announce the marriage (TLN 177)—if indeed that appellation applies to him—and Hamlet calls him a “Counsayler” (TLN 1580). He is an advisor, a counselor, with ready access to the king. John Dover Wilson referring to Polonius’s self-description as “assistant for a state” (TLN 1200), assumes that Polonius is the “Principle Secretary of State” rather than Lord Chamberlain (141), but both titles seem too grand. Since the onstage court is but the shadow of a court—not an actual court that had hundreds of staff members and required grand officials—editors might return to the reticence of early editions about Polonius’ exact status (as do Mowat and Werstine, who call him “councillor to King Claudius,” and Hibbard, who calls him “a member of the Danish Privy Council.”) The simpler office affects our perception of the man, the play, and the staging—and certainly the costuming. The more modest office makes credible Laertes’ and Polonius’ belief that Ophelia is beneath possibility as Hamlet’s wife and also provides a motive for Polonius’ busy-ness about the court: he seeks advancement.
The play also offers no proof that Polonius and his family have a residence separate from the Court, as many editors insist in added headings for 1.3 and 2.1, In performance, the relation of one place to another may remain vague, but settings usually imply that the Polonius family resides at Court—and that seems right both for historical and dramatic reasons. Judging by the common practice during the Tudor, Renaissance and Jacobean period, we can surmise that if he has an important position in the Court, Polonius and his family would have lived, at least part of the time, in an apartment within the precincts of the Court to which he was attached. David Loades discusses in detail the status of those who lived and worked for the monarch at his Court. (See The Tudor Court. [Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1987], appendix IV.) When Polonius says that if he is wrong about Hamlet’s madness,
Let me be no assistant for a state
But keepe a farme and carters (TLN 1200-1),
he means, let him be sent away from the Court, to a country residence. Rowe (1709) and all the eighteenth-century performance texts indicate no change of scene for the entrance of Laertes and Ophelia, implicitly making them residents of the Court. Capell (1768), here as elsewhere following the lead of the Wilkes performance texts (1718 and onwards), allows for the possibility of an apartment at Court. His added heading for scene three is “ A Room in Polonius’ Apartment.” Up till 1958, when Sylvan Barnett changed the place heading to the uncertain “a room,” most editors followed Pope (1723) in giving Polonius his own house. While it is true that Ophelia refers to him as being at home (1786), the ambassadors to Norway, returned to Court, are also welcomed home (1111). Polonius’s residence at Court makes dramatic sense, because it allows Ophelia to wander around in the hall so that Hamlet can accost her for the nunnery scene. Though plays are not life, and one cannot expect them to adhere to contemporary accuracy, current editors do well, since the early texts are silent about Polonius’s domicile, to be silent also: conservative editing works best.
A Note about Polonius’s Name
The play also offers no clue about the name Polonius. Since Q1 has a different name for the counselor. the name Polonius has been a special object of interest. Sir Isaac Gollancz, secretary of the British Academy, read a paper to the society on 27 April 1904, which was summarized in Athenaeum on 14 May 1904 (p. 630) and appeared soon after, in slightly expanded form, in the society’s undated first Proceedings (199-202). Gollancz’s paper was never so far as I know published in full, and Gollancz does not refer to it in later work on sources. He comments on the odd fact that Shakespeare’s Danish king has a Polish advisor (as he interprets the meaning of the name Polonius):
Had it been Sweden, it would have seem more in accordance with actual contemporary events. The young King of Poland, who was also King of Sweden, was at war with his usurping uncle, who had unlawfully seized the crown of Sweden.
“England,” says Gollancz, “was deeply interested in the struggle.” A usurping uncle, a young nephew, also a king: this begins to sound something like Hamlet, or the way Shakespeare adapts historical events for his own purposes. The name Polonius could then be an allusion to the historical situation.
Gollancz explains the joke in the name Corambus, which appears in Fratricide Punished, a possible ur-Hamlet analogue (see Bullough, Sources 7: 128-58). The name
suggested connexion with the Latin phrase crambe repetita (cp. coramble, and its variants, in Latin-English dictionaries of the period), adopted into English in the sixteenth-century as crambe, and used as a synonym for tedious and unpleasant iteration.
The OED explains further the derivation of the figurative uses of the word from the unpleasant effects of crambe, twice-cooked cabbage. Gollancz does not note it, but Shakespeare’s change of ending (if he is the author of the change) of Corambus of the putative Ur-Hamlet to Corambis in Q1, with the Latin bis for twice, neatly incorporates the idea of the Latin repetita
Gollancz reasoned that the change in name from Corambis to Polonius resulted from Shakespeare’s wish—after Lord Burleigh’s death in 1598 and the rise in power of Sir Robert Cecil—to make clear that he intended no parody of the elder statesman. But Gollancz does not explain how a change in name could compensate for the satiric elements in Shakespeare’s characterization of Polonius. Since Q1 may derive from Q2/F1 rather than the reverse, the change in name could have been from Polonius to Corambis, a temporary expedient of performance for some reason. But for simplicity’s sake we can maintain the order of the three early texts, with Q1 (1603) considered to represent in some fashion the earliest version of the play.
Gollancz does identify a source for Shakespeare’s characterization (and Geoffrey Bullough, 7: 45, agrees), but rather than eliminate the parody, Shakespeare complicates it.
Gollancz is I believe the first to attach the name Polonius to an important and popular work, De Optimo Senatore, published in Latin in 1568 in Venice and first translated into English in 1598. The author was a Pole, whom Gollancz describes as “perhaps the greatest Polish statesman of his time,” variously known as “Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius” on the 1568 title page; “Lavrentivs Grimaldvs” on the 1598 title page; “Góslicki, Wawrzyniec” in the RLIN on-line catalogue; and “Grimaldus Galicius, Laurentius” in the Short Title Catalogue (12372) . He was born in 1530 and died in 1607 (Gollancz says 1604).
Shakespeare gained from the name not only an allusion to one Pole’s style of writing—self-important, pedantic and repetitious (as Bullough points out, 7: 45)—but also an allusion to a specific Polish ambassador, who may have been influenced by Grimaldus (mentioned also in Bullough, 7: 185-87) —but who did not heed Grimaldus’s advice to listen much and speak little (Grimaldus 89, and cp. Ham. 533).
Grimaldus writes a panegyric on “God-like reason,” repeating the idea many times (cp. Ham. 1350-1 ) but limits the property of reason to those of high birth and wealth. Tradesmen, artisans, merchants and bondsmen should not participate in government (and no doubt players would be among this group):
For our meaning is not, that anye of the multitude, as Plowemen, Artizanes, and other persons of vile occupation shall aspyre vnto the offices, which oughte bee giuen vnto welthye Citizens, Gentlemen, and others of good education and wisedome. [. . . ] Wee maye not therefore permitte, that any Artizan, Merchant, or bondman shall exercise the gouerment, because their trade of life is vile, and voyde of vertue. And albeit they are necessarie for the societie of men, yet in respect they bee occupyed in actions unfitte for free men, they are not to bee admitted to gouerne the commonweale.” (21)
Grimaldus is full of references like these; he describes “The kingdome of Polonia” which, like others,
doth also consist of the said three sortes, that is, the king, nobility and people. But it is to be noted, that this word people includeth only knights and gentlemen. The liberty & fellowship of those orders is so great, as the king, without aduise of his coūcel & their authority doth not any thing, neither can the coūcel determine without the allowance of the King, and consent of the people. (26-27)
The argument about whether or not Shakespeare speaks for the upper classes has never been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but many find ample evidence for Shakespeare’s subversive (if careful) attacks on royalty, riches, and class distinctions (see Arthur F. Kinney, Lies Like Truth: Shakespeare, Macbeth. and the Cultural Moment [Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001]). I can imagine Shakespeare bridling at Grimaldus’s snobbism and yet agreeing with him about the fickleness of the mob (Grimaldus 64-67; Ham. 1409-14). Shakespeare could find both good and ill in Grimaldus’s advice, just as many find both good and ill in Polonius’s advice, especially to Laertes. Shakespeare could be parodying Grimaldus in Polonius’s portrait (as well as using recollections of Grimaldus to parody Polonius)—and thus responding to the admiration that many English nobles felt for the Pole’s treatise.
Shakespeare may also have introduced the name Polonius as a compliment to Queen Elizabeth. In 1597, expressly at the queen’s command, Robert Cecil wrote to the Earl of Essex about the visit of a Polish ambassador to the Court because she was proud of the way she had acquitted herself with him. Thomas Wright (Queen Elizabeth and Her Times, A Series of Original Letters [London, 1838], 2: 477-81) reproduces the letter, and Bullough, who includes the relevant section, evidently sees it as an allusion to English-Polish relations (7: 43-45). But there may be more to it. Even if Shakespeare never read the letter, the event would probably have had wide currency since the queen wished it to be known. Briefly, hearing about the arrival of
an ambassador out of Poland, a gentleman of excellent fashion, witte, discourse, language and person; the Quene was possessed by some of our new counsellours, that are as cunning in intelligence as in decyphering, that his negotiation tendeth to a proposition of peace.
Her shock must have been great when this splendidly-dressed gentleman, “well jewelled and buttoned” (his apparel proclaimed the man, as Grimaldus himself advised, 137; Ham. 537), after greeting her courteously and kissing her ring, stepped well back so that all of the multitude present could hear him and proceeded to discourse in Latin a long tirade against her, to the effect that the queen had
suffered [Polish merchants and subjects of all quality] to be spoyled without restitution, not for lacke of knowledge of the violences, but out of meere injustice, not caring to minister remedy, notwithstanding many particular petitions and letters received [. . . ]
“concluding that if her Majestie would not reforme it, he [the Polish King] would. Cecil continues,
To this I swear by the living God, her Majestie made one of the best answers extempore, in Latin, that ever I heard, being much moved to be so challenged in publick, especially against her expectation.
She criticized the ambassador for speaking to her in public in such a way, contrary to the usage of monarchs with each other; spoke slightingly about the Polish monarch as being chosen by election rather than heredity; but offered to have some of her counselors meet with the ambassador to assess his claims. After her speech, the queen turned to the audience and exclaimed, “God’s death! my Lords, (for that was her oath ever in anger,) I have been enforced this day to scour up my old Latin, that hath lain long in rusting!” So proud of herself was she that she insisted that Cecil write to Essex, and the former urged the latter, when he would write to the queen, “I pray you to take notice that you were pleased to heare of her wise and eloquent answers.” Surely Queen Elizabeth would have been pleased had she seen the self-important, wordy, and overweening Polonius in 1602.
Joan Landis, in her important essay “Shakespeare’s Poland” (Hamlet Studies 6 : 8-17) discusses the use of Poland in the play as a symbol of tragic obedience to demands for violence. Shakespeare’s motive for introducing Poland and Polonius could very well have had that large function as well as the more local one of complimenting Queen Elizabeth with a bit of biting fun for those who could recognize the allusion to her triumph.