Thursday, May 8, 2014

Idle Thoughts -- Shakespeare's Helicopter

1) Discuss the advice Polonius gives his son Laertes in Act 1 Scene 3. Your response should summarize the advice and discuss what the advice suggest about Polonius 

You can't really discuss Polonius's advice to Laertes without regarding Laertes advice to Ophelia which comes immediately before.  Shakespeare put them together so that they would be juxtaposed. We are supposed to compare and contrast even as viewers, and certainly as students.

The one thing that is clear from Laertes advice is that he really is a loving brother very concerned about his sister's welfare.  Is deeply concerned that her sincere love for Hamlet will be destroyed by Hamlet's need to act as a ruler, which means he cannot marry for love, and by the fact that men tend to callously use young women who are trusting and loving.

There are two points critics frequently make about this with which I disagree. The first is that  Laertes advice is just as pretentious and useless as his father's advice to him. The second is that Laertes is simply trying to be another domineering male figure like his father, controlling the female in the family.

First point: Laertes is clearly giving actually very good advice. It is very likely that a girl her position will be used and abused. Being a young man of wealth and power himself, Laertes knows how easy it is to use and abuse a trusting girl.

This is hypocrisy in that what  he wants to do himself to other girls is what he doesn't want to happen to his own sister. Nevertheless, it does reflect a real concern and love for her and her desire to see her protected and safe

The second point: Laertes is indeed trying to control his sister, but it is clear that he is experienced while she is not. He is in a position of superior knowledge. Of course, we cannot deny that he is trying to control her life for her, however good his intentions may be.

Immediately after this advice is given however, she points out but she doesn't want him to be like so many preachers and ministers. They tell everyone how to follow the hard road to heaven and then themselves are dissolute and disobedient to the very rules they themselves have  laid down. In other words, she knows that he is being a hypocrite. He wants his sister to be treated better than he treats other men's sisters.

At this point Polonious comes in to get his advice. His advice, unlike his son's advice to his daughter, is not practical at all. It is the very vague, sort of catchphrase that one frequently hears in old wives tales, Ben Franklin's almanac, and other collections of advice that can be taken almost anyway you want them to be.

It is not that the advice is bad, it's just very general. It's a list of statements that are so obviously true that you wonder why you need to waste breath to state. On the other hand how do they apply to any practical situation?

Laertes is trying to protect Ophelia in a very specific situation, from a very particular threat. Polonius wants to fill his son with a set of guidelines which will apply everywhere, anywhere, anytime. And of course, because they are so vague they also don't apply anywhere or at  anytime in a useful manner.

You need to consider George Washington's two lists. What a young man, he made a list of virtues and a list of manners. They sound a lot like Polonius' advice in many cases. But Washington took them seriously and they greatly affected his future character. So maybe Polonius' advice is not entirely pointless.

This is often interpreted by critics as showing that Polonius is shallow and pompous but nevertheless wishes to exert extreme control over his son. I disagree. The man clearly does love his son and wants to protect even though he will be far away in a foreign land at school.  He does not seem to be an overbearing parent, but an over concerned parent. He reminds me less of a domineering father of the past than of a father who today we would call a helicopter parent. Always hovering over their child trying to protect them and keep them from harm.

I contrast this to the relationships of the baby boomer generation. Our parents were quite distant in many ways. They were distant authority figures with whom we often felt in conflict. This was true even as we grew up, in fact became more true as we grew up. Today I see families in which parents and children often do end up in close adult relationships. This was virtually unheard of for my generation.  I see Polonius as a much more contemporary parent even then the parents of my generation.

I am not  so critical of him as so many literary critics tend to be 8 I see him as a rather a bumbling figure. He's trying and is trying very hard. He just isn't very competent.

In fairness, I must add that, in keeping with the beliefs of the time, he does regard his daughter is a permanent child until she is married to her husband, and then he expects her to be a permanent child toward him.

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