It is one of the countless famous quotes coined by William Shakespeare. In Act 1, Scene III of the famous play, Hamlet, Polonius says,
“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/Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
Today, these words of Polonius are taken pearls of wisdom by Shakespeare on living a good and balanced life.
The audience of Shakespeare was well aware of the meaning of his words, though in modern age, the words like “Self” and “True” have different meanings than that of during the Elizabethan era. In fact, this phrase implies multiplicity of meanings. The first meaning is that someone can better judge himself if he has done what he should or could have. The second meaning is that one must be honest in his ways and relations. The third meaning is that one must always do the right thing. Finally, keeping in view the character of Polonius in the play, many scholars are of the view that that by ‘True’ he meant beneficial; therefore, his advice to his son meant that he must think of his own benefit first.
Nowadays this phrase is widely used in context of honesty and commitment. Generally, people use this phrase when someone tries to cheat them. Bosses use it in their offices, lecturing their employees not to waste time, while parents use it to warn their children to refrain from keeping a bad company. Service and production companies also use this phrase as a slogan, showing their commitment, dedication and adherence to quality and standard.
Shakespeare has used this phrase in Act-I, Scene-III, lines 78-82 of his play, Hamlet. Polonius has spoken these words as a token of advice to his son, Laertes, at the time of his departure to Paris. He says:
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.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
(Hamlet Act-1, Scene-III, 78–82)
Though, Polonius believes that a person can be harmless and good to others when he/she himself/herself is financially sound. Therefore, he/she must be loyal to his/her best interests first, then take care of others. However, the modern age has given it entirely different meanings to this phrase as it connotes the ideas of truth, self-ownership and individuality.
Shakespeare uses irony and humor by masterfully presenting his characters, that speak high and act low. Polonius is one of those characters whom Shakespeare does not intend to present ‘profoundly’, nevertheless, he lets him speak as a ‘scholar’, creating humor and satire. Today, critics believe that the gaudy speeches of Polonius in this play are actually Shakespeare’s own maxims for living a good and noble life.
Following are the literary devices present in the phrase:
- Imagery: ‘Self’ and ‘True’ are parts of figurative language.
- Irony: In the play it is a piece of ‘irony’ on part of Polonius.