Reynaldo is a servant of Polonius, sent to Paris by Polonius to investigate the activities of Laertes.
Reynaldo is a dutiful, trusted servant of Polonius. We know that from the simple fact that Polonius trusts him to make an international trip with money. We can be sure Reyanldo will do as instructed, as best he can.
Reynaldo appears in the play only in Scene 6. He never returns, and is not seen in the play after Scene 6 because he is dead. Laertes will kill him in Paris.
Look at exactly what Polonius tells Reynaldo to do, and consider how it will look to Laertes, in Paris.
Polonius gives Reynaldo a rather long list of things to find out in Paris. He tells Reynaldo to do the various things, including talking to people about Laertes, before he presents himself to Laertes. It will obviously take Reynaldo long enough, to do what Polonius asks, that word of Reynaldo's presence and activities will reach Laertes before Reynaldo does.
In particular, Reynaldo is to speak to friends of Laertes. Those are the exact persons who will talk to Laertes. Reynaldo is to say to them various things, things which could be construed as defamatory, that Reyanldo just makes up. Even if Reynaldo hits on a truth about Laertes by accident, it's offensive for him to be saying such things.
Before Reynaldo presents himself to Laertes, friends of Laertes will tell him that there's a new Dane in town, who says he's a family acquaintance, and who's saying things like, Laertes has a bad reputation as a gambler (which Reynaldo will do as he raises subjects in conversation that Polonius wants him to check.) Laertes won't like it a bit. As several of his friends tell him similar stories, of the Danish family acquaintance who's saying that Laertes gambles, consorts with prostitutes, and whatever else Reynaldo thinks of to say, Laertes will very seriously want to know who's doing that. He will easily find out. He'll simply walk through the neighborhood with his friends, until one of them points to Reynaldo, who will still be doing as Polonius instructed him. At that point, Laertes will draw several conclusions.
- Reynaldo is a liar. The "family acquaintance" story he's been spreading is not true. He's a servant, and Laertes knows it full well. Reynaldo is lying about being a family acquaintance to conceal who he really is.
- Why is Reynaldo in Paris? Laertes will conclude it's because he's been fired by Polonius. Since Polonius is so influential in Denmark, Reynaldo couldn't get another good job there, so he's come to the Danish neighborhood in Paris hoping to find a position. That will be confirmed, for Laertes, by the fact that Reynaldo has been checking on the employment of servants in Paris (as Polonius told him to do.)
- Why would Polonius fire Reynaldo? Because of his slanderous mouth. Laertes will think Reynaldo got caught saying the same sort of things about Polonius, in Denmark, that he's going around saying about Laertes in Paris. So of course Polonius has fired him.
- The reason Reynaldo is saying such things about Laertes in Paris is out of resentment against being fired. Reynaldo is out for revenge against the family that fired him.
Laertes will be extremely angry about it, based on what he will conclude. His temper will be burning hot.
When we first see Laertes in the play, we may take him for a typical young man. Later, we learn some important specifics about him. We learn, for one thing, that when some event gets him going, he has a violent temper. His storming of the Castle, at the head of the rabble, is more than enough confirmation of that. We also learn Laertes has outstanding skill with a sword.
Reynaldo has made an outstanding swordsman, who has a violent temper, extremely angry at him.
Laertes will go up to Reynaldo, grab him by the collar, with his other hand on the hilt of his sword, and say to him (pardon my lack of Shakespearean finesse) "just exactly what the hell do you think you're doing, pal?!"
Laertes will be expecting, and demanding, that very instant, the most abject apology human lips have ever uttered. Will he hear it? No.
Confronted like that, Reynaldo will immediately tell Laertes the truth. But, what is the truth?
Reynaldo will nervously stutter and stammer, "Um... I... I... uh, your father... your father sent me here on a... a secret mission, with special orders, to... uh... to find all your friends, and uh... talk to them, and... uh... to say the worst things about you I could think of... uh... you know, to hear how they would reply. You see? That's it, it's a secret mission for your father, that's what I'm doing."
Will Laertes believe that? Lord, no. Laertes has already concluded why Reynaldo is there, and doing what he's doing. It will sound to Laertes like the stupidest lie he ever heard. Not only that, it will make things worse when Laertes hears Reynaldo try to blame his father for Reynaldo's own grossly offensive misbehavior, after Laertes has concluded Polonius fired Reynaldo.
If Reynaldo had an hour to explain it, he might somehow be able to. He does not have an hour, as Laertes's grip grows tighter on his sword. Reynaldo has five seconds... four... three... He won't be able to explain it in time.
Reynaldo is dead.
For anybody who still doesn't understand it, I can only suggest doing as follows.
- Go to some city, in Europe or the U.S. It may not greatly matter which one.
- Go to an ethnic neighborhood in that city.
- Spend some time talking to people there, and find out who's the toughest, meanest man in the neighborhood.
- Go around the neighborhood slandering that man, to everybody you talk to. Say whatever you please. Say you heard from a reliable source that he peddles child pornography. Say you heard, from somebody who should know, that he's a drug dealer. Or, depending on the kind of neighborhood, say you have it on good authority he's an informant for the police. Do that for a while.
- When you find yourself suddenly confronted by a big, tough-looking, mean-looking, extremely angry man, who has a gun, or a knife, or just his big clenched fist, simply tell him the truth: "I'm on a secret mission, that a guy on the internet said I should do."
- He will, of course, slap himself on the forehead, and exclaim, "Gosh, I should have guessed it was a secret mission. Silly me." He'll then give you a friendly pat on the shoulder, and a big smile, and compliment you on your cleverness, and he'll stroll away with a spring in his step, whistling a merry tune. Sure he will. You bet.
Good luck. You have life insurance, right?
Oh, the right way to find out what Laertes is up to in Paris is to hire somebody to follow him, à la Sherlock Holmes and his Baker Street irregulars. That's how it's done.
Oh, also, about the money and the letters, that Polonius gave Reynaldo to deliver. Can't Reynaldo show those to Laertes, to prove his honesty? Nope. Based on his conclusions, Laertes will think Reynaldo stole the money from Polonius. He'll further think Reynaldo stole the letters, to see if they contained anything he could use to blackmail Polonius or Laertes. The money and letters will only get Reynaldo killed ten seconds quicker than Laertes is going to kill him anyway.
Polonius called his idea a "fetch of wit." From Shakespeare it is, it's brilliant. From Polonius, it's a train wreck. Why does that crazy idea sound so good to Polonius?
Polonius is a statesman, a politician. He lives in a world of words. He speaks words to his servants, and they do things (and usually survive.) Polonius talks to the King, and if he can find properly persuasive words, the King orders things done. Polonius accomplishes almost everything in his career with words. So, when he thinks of a way of finding out about Laertes, using words, it sounds perfect to him. Words are his life. He doesn't take into account, that out there in the greater world, beyond politics, there's more than just words. Here and there, for example, there are swords.
Polonius also has the limitation that he can't see situations from any other than his own point of view. It doesn't occur to him how Laertes might view Reynaldo's activities. Nor, in the Nunnery Scene, Scene 8, does it occur to Polonius how Hamlet might interpret what he sees and hears during Polonius's eavesdropping scheme, and that leads to another tragedy.
So, Polonius misses the problem with what he tells Reynaldo both because of his life-long career, and his personal limitation.
- Costume - When Reynaldo is on stage in Scene 6 he must be neatly dressed in the livery of Polonius. That's the only correct costuming for him, since it must be absolutely clear he is a servant, and not a member of Polonius's family. Do not allow the audience to suppose he might be Laertes's brother (which they could, since Reynaldo is being sent on family business.)
C. Elliot Browne was probably correct in observing, when he wrote in "Notes on Shakespeare's Names," The Athenaeum, 29 July, 1876: "Reynaldo, both [in Hamlet] and in Alls Well, is a servant or steward, and it is significant that the best known of the historical Rinaldos ... was high steward to Louis the Pious." Louis the Pious is no trivial figure in European history, he was the son of Charlemagne.
There are several elements in the biography of Louis the Pious which match up with elements and concepts in Hamlet. The ones that can be quickly identified are, in no particular order:
- Field of Lies. A place of defeat for Louis, so called from the dishonesty involved. The name is immensely suggestive in relation to the Graveyard Scene in Hamlet, Scene 19, with all its "lie" banter between Hamlet and the Clown Sexton, and indeed, a graveyard could be creatively viewed as a "field of lies" in a way. Further, what Polonius tells Reynaldo to do is essentially to "sow a field of lies" about Laertes, in a manner of speaking.
- Women sent to nunneries. Louis sent his sisters to nunneries to try to keep them from becoming focuses of political intrigue. In Hamlet, Hamlet famously tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery.
- Rome. Louis was co-emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Rome gets several allusions in Hamlet.
- Mistreatment of a nephew. By Louis in his bio, by Claudius in Hamlet.
- Poison, at least rumored in an incident in Louis's bio. Poison as an element in Hamlet is too obvious to dwell upon.
- A prominent accusation of adultery, in Louis's bio. The Ghost insinuates adultery in Hamlet.
- Several "diets" at Worms, in Louis's bio, and an allusion by Hamlet in Scene 14.
- Usurpation, as an incident in Louis's bio. The word usurp appears a few times in the Hamlet dialogue, with an insinuation against Claudius.
- Trouble in connection with poltical elections, in Louis's bio. In Hamlet Hamlet speaks of Claudius "popping in between" the election and his, Hamlet's, hopes.
- Much todo involving brothers in Louis's bio.
- The King of the Vikings was Rorik in Louis's day, the same king as in Saxo's "Amleth."
That's rather a lot of conceptual and elemental similarities, with the "Field of Lies" especially prominent. A closer study might find more than the above, of conceptual similarity. In Hamlet, Shakespeare was working with concepts, as he wove the Themes and the Motifs into the play. It does seem reasonable to suppose, in that regard, the bio of Louis the Pious drew his attention. Presumably he did not want the name Louis for this character, so he chose the rarer and more distinctive name Reynaldo. I find no better theory to explain Shakespeare's use of the name.
C Elliot Browne's remark on the name can be found in "A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare" Vol. IV, Hamlet, 1877, edited by Horace Howard Furness, third edition, Appendix, page 242, available at the Hamlet Works link: "Variorum" Hamlet, Furness The reader will need the software called DjVu to see that, and will need to enter the page number as "244."
Reynaldo's most significant lines:
- Scene 6#071 Reynaldo: My Lord, I have. - He means he has grasped Polonius's meaning. He would have lived longer if he hadn't.
That's about it for Reynaldo. Observe the irony that, as he leaves, he never does say a proper "goodbye."
Themes and Motifs
BOOKMARK complete these links
Those most immediate to Reynaldo:
Duty. Talk. Death.
Reynaldo does his duty for Polonius. In Paris he talks to people as he was instructed to do, until Laertes suddenly appears, and then...
Reynaldo appears in Scene 6 only. It would be appropriate if Reynaldo appeared silently in the background in Scene 2, wearing Polonius's livery, where both Polonius and Laertes are present, to show that Laertes will recognize Reynaldo when he sees him in Paris.
© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan
All rights reserved. See the Copyright page for further information.