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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