Polonius was a dick. That much is pretty obvious; but even a dick looks out for his own son, and Polonius did have some wise words for Laertes: To thine own self be true. For those of you who don’t have a hardon for Shakespeare, Polonius was the conniving counselor to the new King Claudius in Hamlet (after Claudius murders his own brother to take the throne and sleep with his brother’s wife- double ew).
The long quote is “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.” Polonius means to impart on his last heir one final piece of advice as he goes out into the world (Polonius’ daughter having offed herself by drowning after her lover Hamlet spurned her). After bearing witness to the ruin all his underhanded social-climbing manipulation had wrought, perhaps the old guy finally had an epiphany. Reading the quote from this context, it is perhaps most meaningful. A father, looking at his son, at the potential life which lays ahead, and then looking back at his own life, struggles for the words that might protect his son from making the same mistakes- the one wish every parent has for their child, a better life; and Polonius’ wish for his son is “to thine own self be true.”
In a feudal world with a court jockeying for favor around a king, it is hard to stay true to oneself. In a fickle multimedia status- and possession-obsessed world moving at the speed of tweet, remaining true to thine own self is perhaps the single greatest challenge. There is so much in this life to distract a person from themselves; companies and people telling them what they should desire and work for, fighting to protect your own identity through all that can be exhausting. And if you can’t even put a finger on who you are, how is anyone else supposed to figure it out? Thus we often find ourselves in relationships with complete and total strangers, not just the person sleeping next to you, but the one staring back at you from the mirror.
If every day you see yourself through a kaleidoscope of what you have come to believe you should be, refracted at every angle, how can you begin to show anyone else who you are? There are a lot of influences in our lives which tell us who we should be. Characters in movies and tv: they show us what kind of people others look up to. Our friends let us know what kind of people they expect us to be all the time, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Parents and families are a forever presence in our lives. How do you find a way to be everything to all these people, meet all these expectations?
Polonius simply told his son, don’t. To thine own self be true, and thou canst not then be false to any man. Suppose for a moment that anyone worth showing your true self to would accept you as that; and all others are simply details.