The Unessential Shakespeare : Mrs. Polonius
BY ANNE HARRIS.
FAR too much has already been said of Shakespeare's skill in creating the characters that are actually in his plays, and there is now probably not a single examination candidate whose heart leaps up at the thought of discussing the consummate art and work- manship of Shakespeare as shown in the characters of " any two of the following." It is, of course, useless to deny that Shakespeare shows a certain amount of skill and even genius in depicting these characters—to do so one would have to ignore the testimony of countless examiners and examinees ; but to one who has studied the plays for examination purposes for more than a tenth of a century it seems obvious that his masterly workmanship and genius are chiefly revealed in the way in which he has created the characters that are not quite, but very nearly, in the plays—characters that may well be called " the silent, unheard noises-off of poetry." Of these " almost-written " characters (the number of which, of course, depends on the capacity of the reader), next to Queen Lear, " that she-Hamlet of the Unknown Folio," probably Mrs. Polonius is the most interesting. Practically all students of Hamlet agree that not a single mention of her is made in the text of the play ; yet to the reader who is willing to use his powers of deduction and, possibly, a little imagina- tion, she is revealed so clearly that, to use a phrase almost indispensable to examination candidates dealing with questions on characterization, " we almost feel that we know her."
The first thing that we discover about Mrs. Polonius, apart from the fact that she is Polonius' wife and mother to Ophelia and Laertes, is that she was undoubtedly the daughter of Queen Gertrude's French music-mistress. Perhaps those unused to this sort of Shakespearean criticism will be somewhat startled by this statement, so let us retrace the steps by which we arrived at this important conclusion.
1. Gertrude, when young, like all other princesses, mast have been taught French and music. She came of an economical family :
" Thrift, thrift, Horatio 1 The funeral bak'd meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."
—Hamlet, I. ii. 181.
If Gertrude could combine funeral • and marriage feasts, obviously her mother would economize in governesses, so let us conclude that she had a French music-mistress.
2. Laertes and Ophelia are both musical. " Let him ply his music," says Polonius, of Laertes (II, i, 72), and look at the way Ophelia sings when she is mad and even when she is drowning. Polonius is obviously the sort of man " who hath no music in himself . . . fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils," so the children must have inherited their love of music from their mother's side of the family.
3. Why should Laertes' " thoughts and wishes bend 6 . towards France " (I, ii, 55) if he has not French relations ? Polonius discourages his return to France because he is obviously unwilling for his son to have too much to do with his wife's low-born and foreign relations.
4. Gertrude would take a violent fancy to the daughter of her governess and insist on having her as a lady-in- waiting.
5. Polonius has too high opinion of himself to marry most daughters of French music-mistresses, but an affiance with the Queen's favourite gentlewoman would be politic.
Consider these five statements carefully, and, if you are ever to appreciate noises-off, you should be con- vinced. The very fact that you can take the statements in any order without disturbing the argument proves that our methods are most scientific.
Having once established Mrs. Polonius as the daughter of Gertrude's French music-mistress, we can easily trace the rest of her history. When Gertrude married Hamlet's father and became Queen of Denmark, she brought her gentlewoman with her. At the court there was the King's favourite gentleman (later of course Lord Chamberlain) a handsome, rather pompous man of about thirty-five, who in the entertainments given in honour of the King's marriage acted Julius Caesar (a part he had previously taken with great success at the University, III. ii. 110). Gertrude's gentlewoman swooned when he was " killed i' the Capitol " and the Queen, who was fond of making matches, at once decided that it would be very nice if a marriage could be arranged between Polonius and her gentlewoman. How far the marriage was arranged by the King and Queen and how far Polonius really " suffered much extremity for love" (II. ii. 194) is difficult to say, but we may be sure that he spoke of his love in a speech something like this :
" The course of true love never did run smooth. But love, 'tis said, at locksmiths laughs. In spring A young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love Lightly, and love is like a red, red rose. Love's labours lost are not love's labours found And yet faint heart never fair lady won, &o., &c."
Gertrude's gentlewoman, having few opinions of her own, admired Polonius' way of laying down the law immensely and encouraged him in his habit of quoting precepts.
Mrs. Polonius died when Ophelia was about three years old, leaving Laertes and Polonius to educate the mother- less girl. She herself however had managed to teach the child some melancholy songs and ballads which came in useful later. At the " crowner's quest " it was decided that she had died of melancholy, which was, undoubtedly, in the family, but to which Polonius may have driven her by incessantly trying " with windlasses and assays of bias " to discover if she was housekeeping efficiently.
So far our discovery of Mrs. Polonius has been mere child's play ; the rest would have been silence but for the work of one of Shakespeare's most brilliant but most anonymous critics. But for him we should have had to leave unsolved the hitherto baffling problem of her Christian name and fall back on the theory that she was simply one of Shakespeare's many First Gentlewomen. What was her name ?
In a speech of Polonius to Ophelia (I. iii. 117) we find this awkward phrase " these blazes, daughter, giving," the letters of which, re-arranged, give not only her name, " Elizabeth " and, happily for our estimation of Polonius, " dear," but also some interesting and important informa- tion. When we have removed ELIZABETH and DEAR, there remain the letters SSIIGIZTEGVING, which in their turn give " sight, sung, veg."
The whole sentence now obviously means that dear Elizabeth was wont to sing at sight especially when vegetables were present (for veg. is a well-known Elizabethan abbreviation). For Elizabeth Polonius to sing at sight is in accordance with the intensely musical character we have found her to possess, but why should vegetables move her to song any more than meat or pudding ?
This brings us to the last discovery—that while Mrs. Polonius' mother was without doubt Gertrude's French music-mistress, her father was equally certainly a gardener and botanist (nationality unknown). This accounts for the intense interest in botany, shown by Ophelia and Laertes. Their speeches are full of references to flowers— violet, rose, primrose, rosemary, pansies, fennel, colum- bine, rue and daisy are but a few of the flowers mentioned by them. Laertes shows technical knowledge of the habits of the violet and the canker, and his " primrose path," which has puzzled so many commentators may well be a reference to one of the walks in his grandfather's garden.
Polonius' only reference to his wife admirably sums up our final impression of her, a dear, gentle creature, like her daughter Ophelia essentially " sweet," and like her too finding relief from sorrow in music and vegetables.