Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Parallels in Hamlet - Polonius 3 of 3

Shakes-Speare's Hamlet - Polonius / Bacon  Part 3

Finally there are the last three lines of Polonius's speech:

"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."

In the Arden edition of Hamlet, the editor comments "The final precept - to thine own self be true - has proved ambiguous. Interpretation has ranged from a noble ideal of integrity to a cynical injunction to pursue self-interest. But the tradition of the maxim puts its meaning (Be constant) beyond doubt". The editor paraphrases it as "Be constant, be consistent in your opinions".

Cockburn goes into some finer analysis here which I'll bypass. He notes, though, that Bacon uses the phrase "true to self", or variants of this, several times and with various meanings. However, in his Essay on Wisdom for a Man's Self he couples "true to self" with "not false to others". 

Bacon writes:

"An ant is a wise creature for itself but is a shrewd [harmful] thing in an orchard or garden. And certainly men that are great lovers of themselves, waste the Public. Divide with reason between self-love and society. And be so true to thyself, as thou be not false to others; specially to thy king and country...."

In this sense Bacon meant that one should not be self-centered (except in moderation) but should serve others. "False" in the context does not mean "fickle", but has its usual and wider meaning of "wrong" - one must not wrong others.

It should be noted that the conjunction of "true to self" and "not false to others" has only been found in Shake-Speare and Bacon. Though Coburn thinks something like them might be found elsewhere. He adds that Shake-Speare editors have not been aware of these usages of the same passages by Bacon and that there should be little doubt that Shake-Speare and Bacon had the same meaning in mind in these phrases. He notes there is a similar phrase and meaning in All's Well That Ends Well 1.1.61 where in a somewhat similar passage of advice to a young man, one precept is "Do wrong to none".

The confusion over the meaning of these lines has arisen because Shake-speare in using "false" (which has been misunderstood by some to mean "fickle") sacrificed clarity to have antithesis, as did Bacon in his almost identical wording - both authors were addicted to antithesis. The confusion would have been dispelled long ago if Stratfordian scholars would bother to read Bacon.

Shake-Speare cannot have borrowed from Bacon any of the points arising from Polonius's advice to Laertes since Hamlet predates all the Bacon works in question.

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