Advice From Lord Polonius To Laertes

Learning Shakespeare in High School is done more out of tradition than practicality. Lets face it, there’s little to learn in Romeo & Juliet that you can’t learn watching MTV or Jerry Springer except perhaps Iambic pentameter.

One of the notable exceptions is Act I Scene III of Hamet when Lord Polonius gives some advice to Laertes. This seems like pretty sound advice for anyone:

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
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.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice” always reminds me of Plato’s “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something”.

2 replies on “Advice From Lord Polonius To Laertes”

I’m not sure how you can possibly say there’s little in Shakespeare you can’t get from MTV or Jerry Springer; the assertion is so laughable I’m not even sure how to start at refuting it. I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to be familiar with Shakespeare, but getting at least a flavor of it is part of a good education.

The big problem I see with how Shakespeare is taught is that we read it. Shakespeare wrote plays; acted-out plays include many non-verbal cues and verbal flairs which can be crucial to understanding. A flat reading means you end up spending more time looking at words and less time parsing the overall meaning. If you’re looking for depth of understanding I can see how the reading would be important, even critical, but I don’t see how understanding is improved when you first must fight through the archaic vocabulary, phrasing, and obsolescently witty repartee to do it. When my class went through Romeo and Juliet we heard an audio recording of one scene between Mercutio and Benvolio (act 3, scene 1, I think), and it was significantly easier to understand the scene with that help. It would be better — much better — if the standard approach started with watching the play (possibly preceded by reading a few-page summary of each scene and the overall plot, for slight conditioning) and only then proceeded to a reading of it. Given the ego involved in being a teacher, and the strain of paternalism in teachers which make them likely to reject such an approach as “making it too easy”, not to mention the ease of adherence to tradition, I don’t expect to see this happen very often, unfortunately.

I will agree 100% that being taught by reading a play is a very big problem. There is a tremendous amount of difference between reading the above text, vs watching it. Shakespeare never intended for it to be read, it was intended to be portrayed. It’s akin to shipping parts rather than a product.

As for educational value… it’s pretty much a dry well. The most common argument “it is ‘the standard’ in English education”, is akin to saying “geocentrism is superior to heliocentricism because we believed it for so long”. There’s quite a few that are easy to shoot down as silly.

It will be taught for many years to come, but mainly because of tradition.

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