Misunderstood Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true”

There are thousands of images of this quotation in various fonts, or in hand-drawn calligraphy, as a caption on tee shirts, jewellery and even furniture, and as “motivational’ tattoos on Pinterest and Instagram. 

I cringe every time I see one of them, especially the tattoos. A photo can be deleted; a tattoo, not so easily. Don’t get me wrong: I love tattoos. I have six of my own. But the quote doesn’t mean what all those people think it does. 

The quotation comes from Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet in which a man named Polonius admonishes his son, Laertes, for still being at home instead of already on board the ship that is going to carry him to France, and insists that the ship will be waiting for him. Polonius then proceeds to keep on talking so that Laertes is even more delayed than he originally was. He cannot resist taking that one last opportunity to give Laertes a few pieces of “expert advice” to take with him as he leaves home and makes his way as a man of the world.  

At the end of the lecture he drops this bomb: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

These days, people tend to interpret this as Polonius encouraging Laertes to be proud of who and what he is, to be individual, and embrace his own character in an early modern version of “you do you”. 
Sadly, that is not the case. Polonius is not a candidate for any “Enlightened and Sensitive Parenting Award”. 

The intention behind “to thine own self be true” is neither about resilience or integrity. What he’s really saying to his son is “Screw everyone else. Put yourself first, do what you want, and don’t worry about what other people might need or want.” 

Nice, eh? Because what the 17th (or any other) century needed was more selfishness and arrogance from over-entitled, egotistic men.  

Rather than promotion of healthy self-awareness or individuality, this quote is, in fact, really bad parental advice given to a young man by his father who happened to be a self-important, pompous ass who liked the sound of his own voice far more than anyone else liked it. 

I’m all for healthy self esteem and individuality. We should definitely be promoting that. But we should also be promoting respect and tolerance for others and the ability to consider their needs at the same time, and Polonius was never going to be interested in any of that.

Don’t follow any advice that comes from Polonius, kids. Hamlet was 100% correct when he called him a rat. Neither he nor his self-serving philosophy deserves your respect. 

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‘The Lion King’ and ‘Hamlet’: A Question of Life or Death

‘The Lion King’ is on TV tonight and, of course, I’m watching it. I’m singing the songs. I’m totally loving it. If anything is able to make me turn the TV on, it’s going to be a musical. 

And Facebook is alive with people proclaiming that it’s basically ‘Hamlet’. 

Well, no. It’s basically not. 
And I’m not even sorry for any disappointment that may cause. 

Anyone who believes the two stories are the same either pays too much attention to social media and the popular clickbait theories that abound there, or they have not paid sufficient attention to ‘Hamlet’ at all. 

Scar is certainly as evil as Claudius. He’s certainly interested in getting rid of his brother and his nephew and taking over the kingdom, and takes full advantage when Mufasa dies in a situation that he has engineered. 

That’s really where the similarities end. 

In fact, it’s really only a very tenuous connection. Scar is by no means the only brother of a king ever to aspire to the throne through nefarious means, so that’s hardly a convincing argument for a direct correlation between the two texts.  You could use the same argument to suggest that ‘The Lion King’ is based on ‘Richard III’, which it clearly is not.

Furthermore, Sarabi – Simba’s mother – does not enter into a relationship with Scar. The fact that his mother married Claudius, his father’s brother and murderer, is the root cause of much of Hamlet’s angst and misery.  Given that this is one of the crucial elements of  the play, and there is zero correlation in ‘The Lion King’, that’s fairly conclusive evidence that the two are not the same story. 

Sure, the ghosts of the dead fathers both appear and speak to their sons. However, they hardly communicate the same thing, and it’s at a very different stage of the plot. Mufasa tells Simba to grow up and retake his kingdom while Hamlet’s father urges him to get revenge on his brother for murdering him and taking not only his kingdom, but also his wife. “Remember who you are” is a very different message from “Revenge!”

Simba is nothing like Hamlet in character, other than being the son of the dead king. Simba is naturally optimistic, fun-loving and adventurous. Simba runs away thinking he’s responsible for his father’s death. Morose and pessimistic, Hamlet hangs around the castle, feigning madness and overthinking everything to the point where his agonising over what to do actually prevents him from doing anything much at all. 

The correlations among the minor characters are, similarly, only superficial. 

While both Simba and Hamlet have two friends, Timon and Pumbaa are not anything like Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.  Timon and Pumbaa rescue Simba and remain his friends throughout the story. Hamlet’s friends are quite willing to sell him out at Claudius’ bidding, and there is nothing loyal or supportive about them. 

Both Simba and Hamlet have girlfriends, but Nala doesn’t go mad and drown herself in a river. 

Zasu and Polonius both talk way too much, but that’s about the only similarity between them. 

In fact, that’s the difference between the two in a nutshell: ’The Lion King’ is life-affirming and positive.    In direct contrast to ‘hakuna matata’, there is no ‘problem free philosophy” in Hamlet, a play that philosophises about death and suicide and which finishes with the main characters and many of the minor ones dead. 

So, there you have it. The difference between ’The Lion King’ and ‘Hamlet’ is a matter of life or death.  The basic premises are polar opposites, so the two cannot possibly be the same story.