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Polonius Production Diary: Jephthah!

A thing that came up last night as we were working II,ii: Does Polonius know the Jephthah story? Here are the lines in question, which are in Hamlet’s mad scene:

HAMLET:      O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
POLONIUS     What a treasure had he, my lord?
HAMLET     Why, One fair daughter, and no more, The which he lov├Ęd passing well.
POLONIUS     [aside] Still on my daughter.
HAMLET     Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?
POLONIUS     If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.
HAMLET     Nay, that follows not.
POLONIUS     What follows then, my lord?
HAMLET     Why, As by lot, God wot and then, you know, It came to pass, as most like it was—the first row of the pious chanson will show you more, for look where my abridgment comes.

Hamlet is specifically referring to a song:

I have read that many years ago,
When Jephthah, judge of Israel,
Had one fair daughter and no more,
Whom he loved passing well;
As by lot, God wot,
It came to pass, most like it was,
Great wars there should be,
And who should be the chief but he, but he.

And more generally referring to Judges 11.

It seems to me that Polonius doesn’t know the song—he doesn’t know what follows, in the sense of the next line of the song. That makes sense to me, and is fine: it is proper for old age to not know popular lyrics. But would Polonius know the Scripture? Today, I would call it an obscure story, as obscure as, oh, the rape of Dinah—not as obscure as Ehud the Lefty and Fat King Eglon, but not as well-known as Judith or Sampson. I certainly would not casually throw in a reference to Jephthah’s daughter in conversation without explanation. But that was a different time, and Polonius is (or was) a sharp sort of a man, if pretty strongly anti-clerical. It’s hard for me to accept that he wouldn’t know the Jephthah story.

And yet, he doesn’t react to being called Jephthah anywhere near strongly enough. I mean, when Hamlet calls him Jephtah, he doesn’t immediately flip out. He doesn’t make his aside recognizing that it’s another reference to his daughter until Hamlet uses the word daughter, and even then he accepts the name and seems to accept identifying Ophelia with Jephthah’s daughter. All of that makes sense if Hamlet has completely baffled Polonius by the reference, but not so much if Polonius is even dimly aware of the outlines of the Jephthah story.

I’m going to have to figure out how to play the scene at some point, so I’ll have to make a decision. Our Director has advised me to try it each way and see what feels right (she’s that sort of director, about which more anon) which is all well and good, but maybe some of y’all can help, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Huh, I feel like I'm familiar with this story (warrior prays for victory, vows to sacrifice first thing he sees on returning home, first thing is something he loves) -- has it shown up in other pop culture places, or am I remembering it from like Sunday School as a kid or something? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jephthah#Cultural_influence doesn't list anything that rings any more of a bell to me.

I'm going to say that perhaps you remember it from this Tohu Bohu; I'm sure I have written about Jephthah more than once. On the other hand, you may be thinking of Iphigenia.


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