Lazy Afternoon Reruns: “‘To thine own self be true.'”

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” as Laertes is leaving the castle Elsinore to return to France, his father Polonius gives him a whole slew of advice – much of it good, like: keep your ears open and your mouth shut – and he punctuates the short speech with the now-famous lines,

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

I’d been re-reading “Hamlet” in order to teach it this semester, in lieu of teaching “Macbeth,” which is in our textbook, for an eighth time. I thought we’d mix it up a little bit.

“To thine own self be true,” he says. What does that mean? One of the wonderful things about reading Shakespeare, which some readers find more troublesome than wonderful, is that his phrases often have multiple meanings, and “Hamlet” is chock-full of those phrases. The key word here is “true,” which can mean two different things: accurate and correct, or benevolently faithful. To say that a statement is true is one thing, but to say that a lover is true is something else. Which does Shakespeare intend when he has Polonius tell his son to be “true” to himself? It might be both.

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