Although Polonius is not a main character in Hamlet, he serves to reinforce the pattern of corruption, and demonstrates the social and moral decay of Denmark. His devious ways show the audience that he is one of many characters who lack conviction and integrity. Throughout Hamlet Polonius is a hypocrite who looks out for his own interests, and betrays those he should be loyal to. These aspects of his character are revealed in his relationships with the King, Ophelia, Laertes, and Hamlet. Polonius can be described as Janus-faced. Janus was a god from Roman mythology who had two faces, each looking in opposite directions.
Similarly, Polonius is two-faced in his interactions with people. One example of this is his relationship with the King. Polonius was King Hamlets loyal servent, well liked and trusted by King Hamlet, Gertrude and Hamlet. But his loyalty to King and Prince Hamlet is limited. Polonius proclaims his loyalty to Claudius, the new King in the following speech, “I assure my good liege, I hold my duty as I hold my soul, both to God and to my gracious king..” (II.ii.43-45).
If Polonius was actually loyal to King Hamlet, then he would have never supported the deceitful, murderous Claudius. This speech also addresses the issue of Polonius moral integrity. He claims that his soul belongs to God. Yet if he was the devout Christian that he claimed to be, he would have been honorable and loyal to his children and King Hamlet. Another Christian value which Polonius talks about is honor. In Act I, Scene iii, line 96, Polonius says to Ophelia, “You do not understand yourself so clearly as it behooves my daughter and your honor”.
This scene shows how much of a hypocrite he is; he constantly does dishonorable deeds, yet he is preaching to Ophelia to act honorably. Polonius makes decisions based on benefiting himself, not on the well being off his family. This can be seen in his interactions with Ophelia and Laertes. In Act I Scene iii, Polonius is giving advice to his daughter about refusing Hamlets advances. The language that he uses is blunt and unkind, it is not the typical loving, nurturing interaction between a parent and child.
He refers to her as a “woodcock”, a gullible bird. He tells her, “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth have you so slander any moment leisure as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. (I.iii.131-134). This last comment shows how much he only cares about himself. He doesnt care how Ophelia feels about Hamlet, what matters is that her love affair with Hamlet makes Polonius look bad. Because her actions will affect his image, he forbids Ophelia to see Hamlet.
Polonius conversations with his son further prove his two-faced, betraying nature. Polonius sends Laertes off to France with a few words of wisdom in Act I Scene iii, lines 59-81. He speaks in cliches which take away from the meaning of his advice. Among other things he says, “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.” It would be good advice if it were coming from a virtuous, honorable man.
But, since Polonius says it, it cant be taken seriously. After his seemingly heartfelt conversation with Laertes, he finds Reynaldo and plots to ruin Laertes reputation. This comment exemplifies his evil plot, “..breathe his faults so quaintly that they may seem the taints of liberty, the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind, a savageness in unreclaimed blood, of general assault.” (II.i.31-34) His theory is that Laertes will be so disliked that he will be forced to return to Denmark. Not only is Polonius being selfish, he is betraying his own son.
Polonius is a dishonorable man; he lacks morals and conviction. He is also transparent and two-faced. As Hamlet is killing Polonius he makes some insightful comments about Polonius, “Thou wretched, rash intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy better..let me wring your heart for I shall if it be made of impenetrable stuff..” (III.iv.31-36). Throughout the play Polonius proves that his character lacks heart and honor.