SHAKESPEARE PLAYED IRONIC JOKE ON WORLD

The following article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times or Chicago Daily News sometime during the 1940s. It was written by Sydney J. Harris.  I discovered this clipping tucked between the pages of The Works of William Shakespeare¹.  Since I could not find it on the World Wide Web I thought I would post it here for benefit of posterity:

His understanding of human nature is unsurpassed

Authors, who get tired of being solemn folk, sometimes play jokes on readers. The authors die, the readers die, but if the jokes are good, they go on forever.

Such a fate has happened to Shakespeare’s most ironic joke about hypocrites — the speech of Polonius in “Hamlet,” which contains the famous line “to thine own self be true…”

Many famous people proclaim this speech of Polonius, in which he gives advice to his son, as their “philosophy of life.” But if they would bother to read the play carefully (which they never do), it would be evident that Shakespeare’s joke is on them.

 ***

In the first place, Polonius is long-winded – which is why Shakespeare makes him say “Brevity is the soul of wit.” In this terse aside, Shakespeare shows us the glaring discrepancy between Polonius’ words and his conduct.

Moreover, Polonius is plainly a yes man who is never true to himself.: a time-server, a hypocrite, a fuss-budget and a fool.

Shakespeare shows some mercy to some of his villains; he shows none to Polonius, who does not even have the strength for wickedness, and therefore thinks he is above it.

Shakespeare knew perfectly well that all the Poloniuses of his time and the future would seize upon his platitudinous speech as their “philosophy of life.” Just as, in another context, they use the Golden Rule as a grand abstraction which conceals their amoral behavior; or as politicians use the Flag and Motherhood to camouflage the hollowness of their policies.

 ***

“Neither a borrower nor lender be” – and all that petty, prudent people seize uponthis mocking remark to justify their selfishness and prissiness. Yet anyone who knows Shakespeare knows that he admired, above all, the “magnanimous man,” who gave as freely as he took.

There are levels of Shakespeare which the ordinary reader never reaches, because he does not want to. He prefers the “sane” Polonius to the “crazy” Hamlet, not recognizing that until more of us become as good as Hamlet the world will continue to be run by men as bad as Polonius.

¹ THE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. New York: The Hamilton Book Co.© 1901 by The University Society.

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