Friday, December 13, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part III - Whither Laertes?

June, 1960

At the end of the school year, my mother gave my brother, sister, and me autograph books.  Our friends and teachers wrote us messages and signed their names.  My mother wrote: 

“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.”
  - William Shakespeare. Hamlet Act I, Scene iii.

These words were part of Polonius’s farewell lecture to his son, Laertes, who was eager to leave Denmark and get back to France.

My family members were gathered at a holiday dinner recently.  I mentioned this quote.  My brother declared that our mother wrote the same words in his book.  We asked her why she chose that quotation.  She said,

“I wanted you to be true to yourselves.”

I suspect, though, that these words were commonly used by adults in young people's autograph books. At this point, my 20-year-old nephew said, "What's an autograph book?"

"It's kind of a Facebook wall that we could carry with us."

Now many years after these words were written in my autograph book, I wonder at their meaning.  Being true to one's self seems much easier to say than to do.  An academic friend wrote me with this dilemma:  He said:  "I am expected to go to the book launch cocktail of a colleague whose ideology I don't admire and whose book content I'm not interested in."

Going to the event might be advantageous in some respects, although if he is seen as endorsing an ideology he does not agree with, it could soon be a disadvantage as political power moves from one academic group to another.  In this case, being true to himself seems the only safe recourse.

Being true to ourselves gets easier as our values become clearer.  With experience, we become more aware of what we can and cannot tolerate.  We become attuned to the discomfort that accompanies being untrue to ourselves.  Eventually, we can anticipate those situations and avoid them.

Here is Polonius's advice to Laertes:

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

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