Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet and John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius
In every royal court throughout history, there has been the man who knows everything about everyone, and generally has the ear of the king; Shakespeare’s court of Denmark is no exception. Polonius, adviser and Lord Chamberlain to King Hamlet and Claudius, seems to know every intrigue, every alliance made in the interwoven royal court. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Polonius is firmly seated at the King’s right hand and he will go to any lengths to facilitate the union of young Hamlet and Ophelia. Similarly, in John Updike’s prequel Gertrude and Claudius, Polonius acts as the liaison between Claudius and Gertrude, even going so far as to permit adultery to take place and knowingly to allow the royal bed of Denmark to be besmirched by incest. Throughout both the novel by Updike and the play by Shakespeare, Polonius’ interests are obviously his own, but at certain times in Gertrude and Claudius, he does indeed serve others. Polonius represents a paradox of ideals: on the surface, the loyal, if somewhat senile, counselor to the King; below this servile exterior, however, lurks the mind of a schemer unable to achieve the throne itself and, therefore, determined to undermine and to manipulate it in order to retain his own power. Although sometimes his machinations do not go as undetected as he may have planned Polonius achieves these goals of power through his interactions with several of the characters in Hamlet and Gertrude and Claudius.
Shakespeare does not expound greatly on the personalities of his characters; rather he lets them do it for themselves. Through Polonius’s actions and words towards Gertrude in the play, it seems that he is much more in service to Claudius than to his Queen. Gertrude also seems disenchanted with her husband’s adviser, often displaying annoyance with the Lord Chamberlain’s long-winded speeches and commanding him to speak “More matter with less art” (2.2.95). Polonius seems to try to confound both Gertrude and Claudius with gnarled, twisted, flowing statements that could be easily confusing. For example, as Polonius describes Hamlet’s condition, he uses word play to enhance his own cleverness, but only succeeds in annoying the royal couple:
Mad let us grant him then, and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by a cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. (2.2.100- 104)
Polonius is a man who loves words for the power they can bring him, and he uses his rhetorical skills to great advantage.
Although Polonius enjoys hearing his own voice, he does have an amazing amount of self-confidence and faith in his position to the King. He is so sure of his own information sources that he orders the King to remove his head if he is wrong about the source of Hamlet’s madness. This surety comes from...