Polonius is the chief counselor to King Claudius, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia.
- Costume -
As pointed out by Bernice W. Kliman in the Spring 2002 issue of "Shakespeare Bulletin," * there was a notable incident at the English court between Queen Elizabeth I and a Polish ambassador. Queen Elizabeth instructed Robert Cecil to write a letter ** to the Earl of Essex about the incident, which Cecil did, a letter dated 1597.
The Polish ambassador was supposed to be paying a courtesy call on the Queen, in the interests of peaceful relations between Poland and England. However, after being presented to Queen Elizabeth, the ambassador went into a diatribe against England, in Latin.
The ambassador alleged that the Queen knew about abuses by the English against Polish merchants and subjects, but was intentionally doing nothing to stop the abuses. Queen Elizabeth was highly offended by the Polish ambassador's allegations, and by his attitude, and she replied smartly, also in Latin.
As Kliman describes it: "[Queen Elizabeth I] criticized the ambassador for speaking to her in public in such a way, contrary to the usage of monarchs with each other; spoke slightingly about the Polish monarch as being chosen by election rather than heredity; but offered to have some of her counselors meet with the ambassador to assess his claims." (It may be observed that the mention of heredity, in such a context, could be heard as an extremely subtle and clever implication of the ambassador, himself, being a "bastard.") After speaking to the ambassador, Queen Elizabeth complained, in an aside, about being forced to "scour up my old Latin, that hath lain long in rusting." Although the Queen belittled her Latin as old and rusty, Cecil swore in his letter that her reply to the Polish ambassador was one of the best extemporaneous speeches in Latin that he had ever heard.
There is certainly no reason to suppose Shakespeare was present at the encounter between the Queen and the Polish ambassador, but the incident undoubtedly excited much talk, and became the news of the day. It's entirely credible that Shakespeare heard about it. Kliman has probably identified the topical event that led to Shakespeare using the name "Polonius" for the verbose, manipulative, egotistical court councilor in Hamlet. "Polonius" most likely derives from the nationality of that ambassador who was so insolent to Her Majesty Elizabeth I.
* Kliman, "Three Notes on Polonius: Position, Residence and Name." Shakespeare Bulletin 20.2 (Spring 2002) ** The Robert Cecil letter is reproduced in "Queen Elizabeth and Her Times, A Series of Original Letters" by Thomas Wright, London, 1838. (The Polish ambassador's name was Jan Zbigniew Ossolinski.)
In the First Quarto of Hamlet, the character is named "Corambis." In Fratricide Punished, (titled in German Der Bestrafte Brudermord,) the German derivative of Hamlet, the character is called "Corambus," the difference being only a spelling variation. "Corambis" was probably the earlier name for the character, before the political incident with the Polish ambassador inspired Shakespeare.
His most significant lines are:
Themes and Motifs
Most immediate for Polonius:
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