This scene takes place at the residence of Polonius, in a room in the castle of Elsinore. His son, Laertes, offers overprotective advice to his sister, Ophelia, who is in love with Prince Hamlet. His tone shows that it is a well-prepared speech, though he pretends he is unaware of Ophelia’s feelings about love. In fact, he speaks to her in a metaphorical language, underscoring her feminine position.
Laertes explains that she could never be anything more than a plaything to Hamlet, because he is superior and of higher rank than her. Therefore, Hamlet would not choose her as his mate for his whole life. Thus, to safeguard and protect her honor, Laertes argues that she must reject Hamlet’s advances before he deceives her. He says:
“Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature” (Lines 6-7)
Laertes further adds that Hamlet is the voice of Denmark – a fact that Hamlet is also aware of. Ophelia jokingly scolds Laertes to be careful, as he is a young man who does not even take his own advice, saying he is,
“…a puff’ed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And reaks not his own rede.” (Lines 49-51).
Laertes agrees, saying that he must be leaving, reminding her of his advice.
In the meantime, Polonius enters and gives Laertes a lengthy piece of advice on how to live in Paris. He uses a string of clichés enumerating do’s and don’ts for Laertes to follow in Paris. However, the irony is that the old man himself ignores these clichés about borrowing, lending, and using tongue. This led to his being killed in the next act, merely because he cannot hold his tongue.
Then Polonius turns to Ophelia and asks her what they are talking about. She explains that his brother Laertes has advised her about her love for Hamlet. Then, Polonius gives a diatribe on the same subject, saying that Prince Hamlet is a playboy. He says that Hamlet’s only purpose is to make a fool of her, and that he is using her femininity by offering fake vows, which could only be used to trap a stupid bird. Ophelia promises her father to break off her relationship with Prince Hamlet, saying,
“I shall obey, my lord” (135).
Ophelia is introduced in this scene for the first time. She is the sweetheart of Prince Hamlet, though this love seems too heavy for her to carry. First, she has a conversation with her brother, Laertes, who cautions her about Hamlet’s love for her. Then her father continues with the same lecture, saying that Hamlet is a playboy. It seems that she has agreed with both of them that indeed Hamlet does not love her, and that she should avoid meeting him in the future.
This scene presents the foil of Prince Hamlet, Laertes. Laertes is the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, who happens to be the sweetheart of Hamlet. When the play opens, Laertes meets his sister before leaving for Paris. He asks her about her love for Hamlet, and advises her to avoid him. It is because he says Hamlet is too superior for her to love her. Then Laertes meets his father, who advises him how to lead his days in Paris, specifically about money matters and guarding his tongue.
Lord Polonius appears in this scene as a caring father. First, he advises his son about the ways he should live in Paris. Then he advises his daughter about her relationship with Hamlet saying, “Come your ways” (134) and avoid him. This scene also shows his famous circumlocutory way of speaking. Polonius’ words on borrowing and lending, speaking and listening, and other ways of life have become proverbs. For example:
“Give thy thoughts no tongue …” (59)
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. ” (69)
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” (73)
Detailed Analysis of Literary Devices
Alliteration means using the same initial sounds in successive words in a line such as:
“Too oft before their buttons be disclos’d” (40)
“Where of he is the head. Then if he says he loves
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it.” (Lines 26-27)
In the first example, the “b” sound has been repeated as an initial sound, while in the second, it is the “h” sound. These sounds have helped Shakespeare write his blank verse play in pentameter with perfect rhythm.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, such as:
“Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood” (6)
“The virtue of his will, but you must fear” (16)
In these lines, the vowels shown in bold are repeated in a succession, such as “o” sound in the first example, and “i” sound in the second example. They have helped in creating a musical quality.
Circumlocution means to say easy things in a twisted manner, or simply to beat about the bush such as when Polonius says:
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth th’ edge of husbandry”
These lines simply mean that Laertes should not borrow money. However, Polonius has twisted them in such a way that they have become proverbial, and at times become hard to understand.
Dramatic irony is irony of words in the sense that a person gives some advice to a person, but fails to take that advice himself, such as in the case of Polonius. His pieces of advice to his son turn on him and take his life. These are:
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” (Line, 68)
Instead of advising his son, he himself should have become cautious in the castle, not to poke his nose in royal affairs. Disregard of this maxim takes his life, which is quite ironic when he speaks.
Diatribe is a type of lecture in which somebody is criticized, to make the audience understand why the speaker is against that person. For example:
Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers
Not of that dye which their investments show…
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile.”
In the above lines, Polonius launches a diatribe against Hamlet, describing him and his intentions, saying that he is only playing with Ophelia’s heart and nothing more. His vows are just flashy pimps trying to lead her into bad and filthy acts.
Like the entire play, Hamlet has used archaic diction to suit the taste of his Elizabeth audience. The speech of Polonius perfectly suits this style. The use of flowery language full of figures of speech, such as similes and metaphors, has made it a perfect diction for that era.
The speech of Laertes to Ophelia proves him a perfect foil of Hamlet, as his political and rehearsed speech patterns are contrary to Hamlet’s flowery, emotional, and sensational ruminations. His speech also reveals how he can be decidedly different from Hamlet and similar to him.
When two lines with the same metrical pattern rhyme in the same way, it is called a “heroic couplet.” Shakespeare has used some heroic couplets where they suit the theme of the play such as:
“Be wary then, best safety lies in fear:
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.” (Lines, 44-45)
Its purpose is to abruptly close the conversation, to give readers some time to reflect upon the happenings of this scene.
Juxtaposition means to set two contradictory things, acts, or situations together to make one of them prominent. The first two scenes have been set in a dark and misty setting. However, Shakespeare has set this scene in the bright and sumptuous situation of the court. There is light, glamor, and happiness as, opposed to darkness, mist, and confusion in the first two scenes.
Actually, a metaphor is a direct comparison of one thing with another for better understanding. For example:
“And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.” (Lines, 35-36)
In these lines, desire is pictured as a bow and arrow, which is a good metaphor as given below:
“Think yourself a baby
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,
Or—not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus—you’ll tender me a fool.”
Polonius, being a caring and protective father of Ophelia, is saying that the words of Hamlet are tenders or coins, but “sterling silver.” In fact, he compares fake coins to Hamlet’s fake love for Ophelia.
In similar fashion, Polonius habitually uses metaphors, such as “hoops of steel” to show strong friendship.
Metonymy means to use a word for a thing with which it is generally associated. For example, Polonius is using ears for listening:
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” (Line, 69)
Here, it means that Laertes should listen to everybody, but be careful in sharing secrets.
Pun is the use of a word having several layers of meanings, which are too obvious, such as:
“And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character…” (Lines, 58-60)
Here, character is not only the role of Laertes, but also qualities of his person.
Another pun is used by Polonius in response to Ophelia’s use of “tenders,” which means conversation or promises of love, but Polonius says:
“Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?” (Line 102)
It could mean offers or payments, as he is using it in a different sense.
Personification is a literary device in which a lifeless thing is given life and emotions, as if it is a person, such as:
“Give thy thoughts no tongue,
nor any unproportioned thoughts his act.” (Lines, 60-61)
In these lines, Polonius reminds Laertes that he should think before speaking. Here, he personifies “thoughts” into having a “tongue,” and their ability to speak and act. “Tongue” is also a metaphor for speech. Simply, Polonius says that he should not say what he thinks, and should not act too quickly upon his thinking.
Parallelism means the balance of two or more words or phrases in order to make a complete sentence. For example:
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” (Lines, 68-69)
In these lines, Polonius has kept a fine balance of, not only syllables, but also of words and phrases.
Point of View
Point of view means to present a narrative, a story, or an event from the speaker’s point of view. For example, here, Laertes is using the third and second person to tell Ophelia what to do in the case of her love for Hamlet.
“His greatness weighed, his will is not his own,
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state.
Whereof he is the head. Then if he says he loves you…”
Laertes speaks these lines to Ophelia, giving advice about the fake love of Hamlet. He uses the second person point of view by referring to him as “you, he and him.” Through this technique, Laertes shares his personal feelings about Hamlet.
Some of the phrase spoken by Polonius becomes proverbs with the passage of time.
“Give thy thoughts no tongue” (59)
“Give everyman thy ear, but few thy voice” (69)
“Neither a borrower be nor a lender” (73)
“To thine own self be true” (78)
In fact, these are universal truths, which are applied in every circumstance. Therefore, these pithy sentences have become proverbs.
Simile means to compare one thing with another for a better explanation, such as:
“But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”
Ophelia considers it funny that Laertes is advising her. Therefore, she also advises him that he should not become like a “puffed and reckless libertine,” which is also a simile.
The setting of this scene is a room in the house of Polonius. Obviously, it would be in the castle of Elsinore in Denmark. This entire scene takes place within that chamber, where first Laertes talks to Ophelia about Hamlet, and then her father Polonius talks to Laertes and her. He tells Laertes about how to live in Paris, and Ophelia about how to conduct her love with Hamlet.
The tone of this scene is didactic and moralistic, as we first see Laertes counseling his sister Ophelia to reject the advances of Prince Hamlet, and then Polonius advises her on the same subject. He also teaches some moral lessons to his son about his conduct during his stay in Paris. Although the first two scenes are tense and mysterious, this scene is bright and light. The humor of Polonius is at work throughout this scene, in contrast to previous scenes.