« Two Films with but a single thought | Main | Ecclesiastes: 2:24-25 »

Polonius Production Diary: that which that

Among the Polonius bits I have had trouble memorizing correctly, the word choices that are giving me the most trouble are which and that. Just to start with, let me say that I do not believe in the phony rule that restrictive which is ungrammatical. But it turns out that when I am memorizing, it is harder for me to remember restrictive which; I correct it (or rather, say, “correct” it, for this effect defective comes by cause) in my mind. There are three of them:

  • I,iii: Think yourself a baby That you have taken these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling.
  • I,iii: . In few, Ophelia Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers, Not of that dye which their investments show, But mere implorators of unholy suits, Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds The better to beguile.
  • II,i: . This must be known, which, being kept close, might move More grief to hide than hate to utter love.

And another that may not be restrictive—in truth, one of the reasons I don’t believe in the rule against restrictive which is that I don’t altogether believe in the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses

  • II,ii: A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.

And there are restrictive thats.

  • II,i: This is the very ecstasy of love, Whose violent property fordoes itself And leads the will to desperate undertakings As oft as any passions under heaven That does afflict our natures.
  • II,ii: I mean the matter that you read, my lord.
  • II,ii: Hath there been such a time, I would fain know that, That I have positively said “’Tis so,” When it proved otherwise?

Not the last one has the that-that, which is currently deprecated as style, tho’ there is no grammatical problem. Also deprecated, as I learned it, was that to refer to humans, as in this line:

    II,ii: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

…which I have difficulty remembering is not who. Or this line that I have difficulty remembering. One or the other.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I skimmed the start of that article, and still don't know what a restrictive which is. :^p

The sort of dopey rule I learned is that if you put a comma before it, you should say which, and if not, then you should say that.

I'm not playing the game that I lost last night.

I'm not playing the game, which I lost last night.

Maybe one of those is a restrictive which, what do I know. I think the comma changes the meaning (did you intend this? one stroke and you've consumed my waking days #Hamilaria), and that neither ", that" and " which" work as well here.

Your instincts are in line with what they teach—restrictive which just means that the clause that starts with which restricts the noun it modifies—so in your example

I'm not playing the game, which I lost last night.

You are not identifying the game, you're just giving new information about it all the same as

I'm not playing Monopoly, which takes too long.
I'm not playing Mayan Football, which ends in horrible death and mutilation.

In a restrictive clause, the clause does the identifying work.

I'm not playing any game that I lost last night.
I'm not playing any game that takes too long.
I'm not playing any game that ends in horrible death and mutilation.

You couldn't easily say

I'm not playing Monopoly that takes too long.

Because the clause restrictive clause (without the comma) is trying to identify something that has already been identified.

However, you can in fact, in perfectly grammatical English, say

I'm not playing any game which takes too long.

Even though it will get little green squiggles under it in certain word processors and many highschool English teachers will take points off.


If it helps with memorization, you could tell yourself (correctly, I think) that none of the three "whiches" that you are having trouble with are restrictive, so there is no reason to change them to "that." The first two have as their antecedents nouns that are each preceded by a demonstrative adjective ("these tenders," "that dye") pointing to a phrase that provides an identifier for the noun, and the third takes as its antecedent a demonstrative pronoun, which points to a preceding identifier for itself. In all three cases the antecedent of the relative pronoun has already been specifically identified by the demonstrative, so the relative clause is unrestrictive and properly begins with "which."

More grammatical twists:

In the first case, there is an interrupting phrase "for true pay" between "tenders" and "which." Precise mechanics call for a restrictive clause begun by "that" to follow immediately after the antecedent. In cases where an interrupting phrase comes between the relative pronoun and the antecedent, "which" is usual, and such cases are often the ones in which the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction is most blurred.

In the second case, "that" in "that dye" actually points prospectively to the relative clause that follows the noun (introduced by "which.") Since "that" has already done the pointing/restricting, "which" doesn't have to.

Less pedantically put, perhaps if you speak the phrases as if each "which" is introducing an nonrestrictive clause, using "which" will feel natural and using "that" will feel unnatural in those cases and so the correct word will be easier to remember?

In each case, it is possible to interpret the clauses as nonrestrictive, true. However, in each case, that (a) to my mind works against the clear meaning of the text, and (2) makes the delivery of the line less interesting, and takes away from the intensity of the dialogue between Polonius and Ophelia:

tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling: I could, as you say, transfer the restriction to these without doing violence to the meaning (although the meter argues against it). But we are not talking about tenders, generally, we are only talking of his tenders (as I say in questioning her), so these doesn't well identify which particular tenders we are talking about. The clause identifies the class of tenders of which we speak: those that are not sterling. More important, the drive of the line is lost: the whole point Polonius is making, over and over, increasingly crudely, is that boys' promises are untrustworthy. If we take the which clause as not restrictive, it is merely detail.

Not of that dye which their investments show: You are saying that which is a sort of helper to the that, yes? Plausible, although not actually a help to memorization, since Not of that dye that their investments show seems equally plausible to me (and frankly I've been saying Not of the dye that their investments show more often than anything else, I think). You're not saying that the clause itself is nonrestrictive, though, are you? You're just saying that the pre-noun that does the work. Anyway, that line particularly drives strongly toward the last word; we can't have even the slightest emphasis on that or the whole line breaks apart.

This must be known, which, being kept close: On this one, it's kind of a delicate argument. If we substitute the noun, it all goes hinky: [Hamlet's madness] must be known, which, being kept close seems to be saying: Hamlet's madness must be known, and besides, if it is kept close etc. I interpret it that Polonius is using this to point to the clause: [Things that cause more grief to hide than pain to say] must be known. That may be a bad interpretation—plausibly Polonius is just saying that it will be known, will-she or nill-she, and that therefore keeping it close would be an error. And, in fact, at the beginning of the next scene, before Polonius has spoken, Hamlet's madness is the primary topic of conversation. Or perhaps this refers not to the madness but to the Hamlet/Ophelia affair, which when the madness is known would become too painful to hide. I will have to think on that one. And certainly that line does not drive to the end—the meter is no help at all there. Hm.

I should say—with ten days to go before opening, I think I have finally wrestled these three whiches to the ground. I hope. And further, if I screw 'em up and say that it is only the Youngest Member, who has been my line-running partner, who will know. And will also know if I miss any of the three places where Polonius says my liege instead of my lord, which would be another post entirely.


If you have a sense and a memory of the lines in question, I wouldn't argue interpretation with you!
But just to discuss my sense of the lines further, I would say that in the first case, it sounds to me that Polonius is directly indicating that he is talking about Hamlet's tenders, and no other when he says, "these tenders." There's no other reason to use the demonstrative, except to point specifically to the tenders that are under discussion. If he wanted to discuss the general class of tenders that are not sterling, he wouldn't place a demonstrative or even an article in front of "tenders": he would just say "taken tenders for true pay that are not sterling." If the phrase is re-ordered as "these tenders, which are not sterling, for true pay" it becomes clearer what the clause is doing and why it is nonrestrictive. Returning to the order he actually uses, I would say that Polonius, in telling Ophelia that she should think herself a baby to have taken these tenders for true pay, has already implied that these tenders are counterfeit; thus, "which are not sterling" simply makes the idea fully explicit with a reinforcing image: Polonius's point is made, I think, whether he adds the clause or not, but he unnecessarily (and pedantically?) adds it. I agree that Polonius is making the same point over and over, more and more explicitly; that seems to me part of what makes the clause, grammatically, nonrestrictive. Rhetorically, wouldn't Polonius be more effectively emphatic if he didn't use the "which are not sterling" clause at all? or say something more concise like "ta'en false tenders for true pay"?

In the second case, the construction you've been tending to use, not of the dye that their investments show, is a more sensible and poetically sound construction than the line as written. The "that dye, which" construction is both metrically awkward and pedantic. But isn't Polonius prone to that sort of thinking and style?

In the third case, of the two interpretations you offer, I find the interpretation that Polonius is using "this" to refer to the whole Hamlet/Ophelia affair much more probable in light of the elaboration that follows. Hiding the affair now, when everyone is worried about Hamlet's madness, would cause the worry to continue. By revealing the affair, Polonius can dispel that worry, as he will show that Hamlet’s madness has a relatively benign cause. Prior to Hamlet going mad, Polonius had wanted to keep the affair secret because such a relationship would not meet with approval. Now, however, the grief removed by revealing it will outweigh any hatefulness in the news, so sharing the information is a net positive. Certainly, this line also fails to drive to the end--I would see that as a pattern in all these cases: Polonius is constructing an unnecessarily elaborate syntax that disrupts what would or could otherwise be a stronger forward drive in the line. (A verbal "program drop"?)

Again, I wouldn't disrupt anything that works for the role at this point, but that's what I see at work in the syntax of these lines: it's a really interesting grammatical and stylistic pattern and problem!

It is an interesting problem, and if it's fairly minor, well, frankly Polonius doesn't have so many big problems that I don't have time to focus on this sort of thing.

I'll say that while Polonius is long-winded and overly fond of puns and cleverly balanced phrases, I haven't found his meter awkward. Hamlet whole script may be the perfect balance, for me, between the more rumpty-tumpty rhythm of some earlier plays and the very loose rhythm of some later ones. There are a few bumpy lines, but mostly I have been finding the meter a help in both memorization and interpretation (as it is supposed to be) rather than a hindrance.


Some confirmation that these lines are tricky--I just did a Quarto 2 vs. Folio 1 check on them, and in both of the first two cases, the problematic relative cause construction is a Q2 reading that gets changed in F1.

For Q2's "these tenders," F1 reads "his tenders"

For Q2's "that dye," F1 reads "the eye" (which seems like an error)

"This must be known" is the same in both versions.

Just in case anyone was curious . . .

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.