In productions of Hamlet, the character of Polonius too often gets thrown away as a fool and a buffoon. It’s an easy route to take, but I think it’s a shame to do so when the character has so much to offer dramatically. Whether you want to create a tender family dynamic, to contrast with the dysfunction in Hamlet’s, or if you want to create stresses and tension of a different kind in counterpoint, the simple wash of the doddering pantalone undersells the potential that Shakespeare writes into Polonius’s scenes.
One way to get at some of these character choices is through Polonius’s rhetoric. Gertrude begs him for “More matter, less art” precisely because he has a consciously verbose speaking style, with patterns distinct from those of other characters in the play. While he is perhaps most famous for the antithesis he uses in his advice to Laertes (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and so forth), another, less-well-known device dominates much of his speech: epanorthosis, or addition by correction. A simple example of epanorthosis is when you say something like, “Let’s meet at 3—No, make that 4 o’clock.” Epanorthosis is often set off by conjunctions – “but,” “yet,” “or,” etc. A great Shakespearean example is Nick Bottom pontificating on the prologue to ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’:
And he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect,
‘Ladies,’ – or, ‘Fair ladies,’ – ‘I would wish you,’ – or, ‘I would
request you,’ – or, ‘I would entreat you’ – not to fear, not to
tremble, my life for yours.
Here, you can see Bottom correcting himself to improve his vocabulary each time. Polonius does some similar things throughout Hamlet:
1. He closes with you in this consequence:
‘Good sir,’ or so, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman’,
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country.
2. And I do think, or else this brain of mine
Hunts not the trail of policy so sure
As it hath us’d to do, that I have found
The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.
3. And now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say the cause of this defect
For this effect defective comes by cause.
4. What might you
Or my dear Majesty your queen here, think
If I had played the desk or table book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb,
Or look’d upon this love with idle sight?
5. It shall do well. But yet I do believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love.
This self-correction is something an actor can choose to play in a lot of different ways. Does he begin each speech knowing he’s going to add in the correction, or does it surprise him in the moment? Does he think he’s improving upon himself, showing off his knowledge and verbal agility? Or is he insecure, searching for the right answer, grasping for what will most impress his royal audience? Does he speak too harshly and then regret it? Or does he feel the need to hammer a point home? How you play the device can give you a wildly different Polonius – which in turn can give you a different family dynamic, can make you feel differently when he dies, and ultimately can affect the overall mood of the play.
Epanorthosis is just one of the potential rhetorical clues for this character. He’s also prone to chiasmus, the creation of an A-B-B-A structure (“’Tis true, ‘tis pity, and pity ‘tis ‘tis true”), and to hyperbaton, the “Yoda-speak” of disordered syntax (“Mad call I it”). Shakespeare uses these devices to craft a character, but one that lives in the actor’s interpretation, not solely in what’s written on the page.