After much consideration, after several soul-searching days and sleepless nights, I have decided to accept the role of Polonius in the Watertown Community Players production of Hamlet.
I assume the role is still mine, despite the little incident after my audition.
I have been reading the play almost ceaselessly. I have many ideas.
Act I, Scene 3, Lines 54–80. Polonius bids his son farewell and gives him “advice”—“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” “To thine own self be true,” etc. The famous “advice” scene. The dreaded “advice” scene.
In every production of Hamlet I’ve ever seen or acted in, this scene is played for laughs. Polonius talks and talks and talks, rattling off his shopworn sayings. His children stand there and bear it. They wink at the audience, they roll their eyes, they poke out their tongues when he isn’t looking, they heave their strong young shoulders. They slump over; they literally sag under the ponderousness of their pedantic father, their stupid, irritating, long-winded father.
Tedious stuff. We can do better.
Polonius has an inner life. He must have an inner life. He says stupid things, but he is not a stupid man. He is educated, he makes learned references, he has worked his way up to the king’s right hand. What happened to him? Did his talent and intelligence disappear?
No—they are hidden. Polonius was, he says, an actor at the university, but now he’s required to play a different role—a toady to the king, a right-hand man, a bit part in the great drama of the kingdom. He’s a profound man who has to spend his life in an unprofound role.
And now his son is leaving, going off to school. Polonius wants to call forward that old profound part of himself, to pass it on to his son. “To thine own self be true,” he says—but his own life requires him to play a part that’s too small for him.
If we don’t spoil this scene with funny faces, I can make it into a real heartbreaker.
Act II, Scene 1, Lines 1–73. Polonius dispatches Reynaldo to France to check on his son and gives him witty instructions.
This is a very fine scene. It shows Polonius as a model father, liberal and caring. And he has some clever lines. The audience gets to see him as the expansive intelligent man that he is, deep down.
I was disappointed to see that you cut it from the script. Hamlet is long, I know. Something has to go. But there are other ways to save time. Do we really need a Rosencrantz and a Guildenstern?
Act II, Scene 2, Line 92. POLONIUS: “I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.”
I should apologize for what happened after my audition. It was, in its way, a kind of madness.
I had prepared for weeks. I performed Act III, Scene 2—“Speak the speech,” my favorite lines in the play. You watched the other actors. You offered me the part.
I felt like you punched me in the nose.
I mean that very literally. Have any of you ever been punched in the nose? (It has happened to me several times.) It sends you into a special kind of rage—a visceral, below-the-brain feeling. That hot scent of anger gets trapped in your nostrils.
When you told me you wanted me to be your Polonius, I smelled that scent, hotter and stronger than ever in my life.
Let’s put it behind us. From now on, the only scenes I make will be onstage.
Act II, Scene 2, Lines 172–221. Hamlet and Polonius banter.
We will have a lot of trouble with these lines.
This scene is a game of wits, but competitors are not equal. Hamlet’s mind is moving twice as fast as Polonius’s. By the time Polonius understands one insult, he’s been hit with another. This can be very funny, with the right cast.
But not our cast. I think you know the problem. For this scene work, the audience must believe that Hamlet is brilliant and Polonius is dull. Our Hamlet—“Josh,” I think his name is—has many virtues, I can admit. He has a very expressive face—he can conjure up that feral sort of fear and happiness that one usually only sees in golden retrievers and other attractive mid-size breeds. And he is a handsome fellow—but it is a brutish sort of handsome: the heavy brow, the deep-set eyes, the flat nose, the massive jaw.
In short, the audience won’t believe that a man who looks like that is outwitting a man who looks like me.
We can cut some of his wittiest lines—or maybe the whole scene. If we do leave a few of the lines, I suggest reversing the dynamic. Instead of Hamlet running circles around a doddering old man, Polonius is clearly consenting to be the dupe, playing along with the spoiled little prince. I’ll deliver one or two of my lines with a growl to make it clear that I’m not oblivious. I can growl, as you know well.
Act II, Scene 2, Lines 196–203. Hamlet insults old men: “their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with the most weak hams.”
You were right: Hamlet is a younger man’s role. You said it too bluntly, but you were right.
But young as he is, does he really need to say all of these things about old men? It is too cruel to poor Polonius.
Act III, Scene 2, Lines 1–14: Hamlet advises the actors: “Speak the speech. . .”
It really does make more sense for Polonius to speak these lines. He was the actor. He has experience. Who is Hamlet? What has he acted? What does he know about the stage? He is a twenty-five-year-old boy.
Act III, Scene 2, Lines 96–102. Polonius recalls being an actor at university.
Your script omits these lines. We’ll have to put them back.
Act III, Scene 3, Lines 27–35. Polonius enters the king’s chamber, concocts a plan to spy on Hamlet, and rushes out.
These lines are workmanlike. They are there to reveal the plot, and not much else. Shakespeare can’t have spent much time on them. But we can.
I imagine Polonius sweaty. His sleeves are rolled up. He’s glowing. He’s puffing too—he’s just run across the castle, and he isn’t as young as he used to be.
But he is grinning, hugely. He’s glad to deliver this plan, to perform his part. The role as henchman to the king is beneath him, he knows—but he’ll do it well anyway, because he can do it well.
Act III, Scene 4, Line 25. POLONIUS: “O, I am slain!” He dies.
Shakespeare was human. He made mistakes. This is one of them. He forgot to give Polonius a death-speech.
“O, I am slain!”—is this line for the people with the cheap seats, the people stuck behind a pillar? Is it for the blind? Of course he is slain. It is far too banal to be the last thing that I say on the stage.
I am preparing, as Hamlet would say, “a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines,” in my best iambic pentameter, to replace this stupid “O, I am slain!”
If any scholarly busybody complains, we can refer him to some obscure edition of Shakespeare—the Awful Quarto, the Nasty Quarto. But I doubt anyone will object. My Polonius is the sort of character who deserves a death speech, and the audience will see that.
But even a good death speech might not satisfy them. They will think that it is a waste to kill off such a deep character two minutes after the intermission. I have created a Polonius so strong, so powerful, that they may not accept his death midway through the play.
Imagine this: Polonius dodges the dagger. He slips out from behind the arras, collects his daughter, and escapes to Norway. He avoids the final bloodbath—he outwits tragedy. At the play’s end, he returns. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” says the messenger—“but,” says Polonius, “I live! Hamlet is dead, but I live!” The people see that he is the strongest and smartest man in Denmark, and they crown him king. Imagine it—King Polonius. He will be a wise and kind ruler, and he will live for a very long time.
Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in Bartleby Snopes and the Bangalore Review, and is forthcoming in Per Contra and Pacifica. He lives in Massachusetts. You can follow him on the internet at ryannapier.tumblr.com.
Image: Image from page 24 of “Hamlet” (1866) from Internet Archive