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Polonius Production Diary: I,iii (the docks)

Polonius has only one line in the first scene, so I’m going to start in with writing about the docks scene: I,iii. Well, and I call it the docks, because I think of it that way, although it isn’t—the playscript we are using identifies it as A room in Polonius’ house, which is perfectly reasonable. I must have seen a production at some point that set it dockside, which worked so well that I think of it as properly taking place there. I do like (and perhaps this is also from that barely-remembered performance) the notion of the scene with Ophelia taking place in some semi-public place where they are aware of other eyes on them. That theme of being watched, again. Well, anyway.

In the first part, the Laertes part, the famous part, the verse is very regular, very much plowing to the end of the line. There is one line with Beware at the end, but other that, each change of thought is at a line’s end. It’s not hugely rumpty-tumpty (in places, such as give every man thy ear and few thy voice, yes, but there are more like neither a borrower nor a lender be or grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel) but reads very much as verse. I’ll have to see what the director wants me to do with that, which I assume will depend somewhat on the other actors’ skills and habits. Not that Polonius can’t be more versey (as it were) than the people surrounding him, as a character eccentricity, but still.

As for the content of the advice, I’m always surprised by how good it is as advice. Not terribly surprising, but not silly. The more specific it is, the better, which is worth thinking about; the general precepts (by thou familiar but by no means vulgar) are sensible without being helpful. The big decision here is whether this is all stuff Laertes has heard before, or whether Polonius is making it up as he goes along. It can play either way. I have seen it where both Ophelia and Laertes repeat the famous bits with him, as my children do with some of my precepts for them, which can indicate something lovely and real about their family life but leaves the audience out, somewhat, while indicating that there isn’t anything worth listening to in it.

A question for actor playing Laertes: does Laertes like his father? Question for me: does Polonius know whether his son likes him? Are they getting along? Going back to the first scene’s wrung from me my slow leave by laborsome petition—is this a joke or not? Does Polonius want Laertes in Elsinore or in Paris? Part of this is political, yes, but surely part is personal. Will Polonius miss Laertes when he is away? This plays out when Laertes comes back, and Claudius keeps asking him whether he loved his father… one choice is that they left on bad terms and the son feels guilty, now that it’s too late to make it up. Laertes’ response to all this advice is not noticeably affectionate: Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord. But at the beginning he says Occasion smiles upon a second leave. I need to know how Laertes feels to play this scene; the other actor presumably needs to know how Polonius feels at this point for the revenge bits later.

The second part, and Ophelia: What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you? Why does he address Laertes as thou and Ophelia as you? (Laertes addresses Ophelia as you as well; Hamlet mostly yous her but when he gets worked up it’s if thou dost marry, I’ll give thee, etc) (Laertes does thou Ophelia once she’s dead; that’s interesting). Is Ophelia the older sibling? Is he more affectionate with Laertes than with Ophelia? I wouldn’t have said so from the rest of the text. I’m really not sure what to do with the you and thou here.

The verse—the longer speech (springes to catch woodcocks) has much more broken stuff, such as from this time/be something scanter and For Lord Hamlet/Believe so much in him and In few, Ophelia/Do not believe. It ends very solidly: This is for all:/I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth/Have you so slander any moment leisure/As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet./Look to it, I charge you. Come your ways. Almost rumpty-tumpty there, but easy to drive to the end of the verse line.

Does Polonius expect the answer he gets when he asks her what Laertes said? Does he expect an answer at all? Does he—and this is probably central—trust Ophelia to tell him the truth? How different is the play if Ophelia just says nothing, Dad or he just was warning me not to scratch his Young Fresh Fellows albums, jeez? Polonius claims (here and in II,ii) to already know about the two of them, but does he? Ophelia’s lines here and to Laertes (and we don’t know yet how she will give them, of course) are pretty much the opposite of defiant attachment. I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart, she tells her brother, and to her father I do not know, my lord, what I should think and then I shall obey. Is Polonius confident that she is under his thumb enough to tell the truth and follow his commands? Because she does follow his commands, unlike most Shakespearean lovers. And he appears to believe what she says, which (according to the excised first half of II,i) is not how he treats Laertes.

Some parts of that excised Reynaldo bit, along with the I do know line here and II,ii’s And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this hint at Polonius having, well, a substantial sex life. At least in his mind. They don’t mention his wife; I always assumed he’s a widower. Hm, have to think about this. At any rate, Polonius speaks of sexual passion with a kind of fond remembrance, even as he doesn’t want his daughter to experience it, the old hypocrite. Not altogether surprising or unusual there.

Well, a lot to go on with there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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