Good Advice from Polonius

When told “discretion is the better part of valour”, we often agree. This well-phrased truism seems to contain weight, authority, and dignity. The fact that at the back of our minds we know that this nugget comes from Shakespeare can only enhance its gravitas. I bet Shakespeare would laugh if he knew this. These lines come from the comical cowardice of Falstaff as he plays dead to avoid fighting, and stabs corpses to retrospectively bloody his sword and gain undeserved rewards. In this case discretion was no part of valour. The source of this saying reveals it to be the opposite of a sagacious and dignified call for silence. I wish I’d known this as a child; this phrase was often (mis)used to shut me up! I’m sure I also had a relative who used to reprimand me with “her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman”, which is positively macabre when you think about it.

It is often the case that when these Shakespearean truisms are traced back to their sources, they come from the most unattractive characters of doubtful wisdom. Yet there is always a ring of truth in these words that has allowed them to inveigle their way into our speech and gain an aura of authority. Polonius, in Hamlet, is my favourite example of this. Polonius is undoubtedly a bad parent: he uses his daughter as sexual bait in political intrigues and sends spies to report on his son, using slanders as snares for information. In Act I Scene III, Polonius is giving advice to his son, Laertes, who is departing for university. One of the great axioms to be lifted from this dialogue is “the apparel oft proclaims the man”. Polonius advises his son:
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
Or of a most select and generous chief in that.
This is great advice for a well-off young man going out in the world. People will judge you on how you look; dress well, but not over the top (son, you want to look like a serious, tasteful man – not a footballer!). As much as we would like to believe that a book is not judged by its cover, none of us would go to a job interview in an old tracksuit. Polonius’ advice is pretty practical.

On the early modern stage the apparel did indeed proclaim the man, perhaps even more so than it does for us today. Whereas we might associate a particular style with a particular social group, the early modern period actually had laws to govern which social group might wear what. The Sumptuary Laws meant that the wearing of certain fabrics, and even colours, was limited to a specific strata of society. Apart from on the stage, anyone found to be transgressing these laws was punished. However, even in the context of the play, a working class actor wearing the colours of a king was cause for concern according to antitheatrical polemicists. Alongside the fact that it encouraged fornication, the breaking of sumptuary laws was one of the biggest problems that conservative and religious groups had with the theatre. The idea that a man might play a king was a subtly unsettling one because it of the flicker of doubt it cast over the idea of the divine right of kings. By logical extension, the idea of costume threatened the entire social hierarchy.

I, for one, plan to follow Polonius’ advice about clothing. It is part of the magic of Shakespeare, that even in the most farcical moments and from the mouths of despicable characters, he produces memorable and profound moments of dialogue that many people use (perhaps unwittingly) to bolster their own eloquence and to make their children shut up!

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals


  1. Truly there was no valour in the actions of Falstaff . However, there is an ambiguity in the usage of discretion that contrasts his relationship with Hal and yet proves that “discretion is the better part of valour”. Falstaff’s “comical cowardice” is an excellent example of the definition – “the quality of being discrete”. Arguably Falstaff knows some of his limitations and thus for him the first definition is a more apt state of being. Contrast this with “the art of suiting action to particular circumstances”, an art in which Prince Hal/Henry V excels. Hal eschews the first definition as a Prince, coming to blows with his father and once crowned continues in this vein, foolishly it seems, to challenge the might of the French army. It was however his mastery of the second definition of discretion which awards him victory and valour. Equally it is Falstaff’s failure to embrace this secondary strain which seals his tragic fate at the end of HIV Pt2.

    1. I see you point. I think the phrase comes into play again when Hal denies Falstaff ("I know you not old man"). He is being discrete and he is suiting his action to the particular circumstance in a way that must, we imagine, must have taken bravery. However necessary or brave Hal's fatal denial of Falstaff is, it certainly reminds me of Peter's cowardly denial of Jesus. Again, in this situation there is the interplay and ambiguity you mention between valour, cowardice, and discretion.

  2. It is said that Polonius' precepts to his son were commonplace and known well to Elizabethans, and they do seem just a bit of common sense...Shakespeare may have gotten them from Proverbs, or John Lyly's "Anatomy of Wit" or Tusser's almanac, but his speech probably brought smiles on the faces in the audiences...I think Shakespeare might be remembering advice that his father John Shakespeare probably gave him before he left Stratford for London...probably not the same advice, but when he was writing these words, he was probably thinking of HIS father, who was still alive

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment Bruce. How fun to think of this advice coming from the mouth of Shakespeare's father (as well as other sources)! I was recently reading a biography of William Herbert (a candidate for the mysterious WH), and when he first goes to court, and his father is still alive, most records of his activities come from Roland Whyte's letters to his father. Whyte reports, often very critically, on Herbert's behaviour and his efforts to curry favour with the Queen. This reminded me so strongly of Polonius, Reynaldo, and Laertes, it made me smile!

    2. WH!! I am currently studying the Sonnets...not the poems themselves, but more interesting Thomas Thorpe, who WH might have been and the "ever-living" which some Oxfordians think means that the author of the Sonnets was already dead in 1609, when the Sonnets were first published...I don't think Shakespeare meant to have these poems published, do you? Many were personal and private...Where did Thorpe get the manuscripts from?

      "Neither a borrower nor a lender be"...John S. lent money out that was not repaid and went into debt....I can hear him giving Will this advice as they had a final talk near the Clopton Bridge over the Avon River....

      I never heard of Roland Whyte...thanks, it does seem similar to Polonius/Renaldo!!!

      I like to see Shakespeare smiling as he wrote Polonius' advice...Polonius is one of the most important characters in Hamlet, even after he is dead!

      WH's mother, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, may have been responsible for Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"....more on that next time....

    3. In that case I will have to think up a post to draw you out! The Countess of Pembroke is very interesting to me indeed!


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