Shake 38

The Regulars

The Cause of this Defect: Polonius and Epanorthosis
Article by Cass Morris

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.

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1 / Cass Morris. on Aug.13.2014 / 6:49pm
Laziness. ;) I'm being a bit facetious there, but I think a lot of it stems from a directorial style that's more about ideas than about the text -- and the idea of Polonius that's been passed down at least since the Victorians is of the buffoon. It may simply not occur to some directors to challenge that if they're more conceptually driven and less inclined to engage with the text itself. I've seen a variety of really wonderful Poloniuses (Polonii?) over the past few years -- some harsh, some soft, but all with levels within themselves.
2 / Stephen. on Aug.11.2014 / 4:16pm
Very interesting, I'd love to see a side by side of the different ways an actor could interpret the text.

Why do you think most directors have him play a fool?