H2016: Pa Lonius and Family

Michelle Beck as Ophelia, Kenajuan Bentley as Laertes, and Robert Jason Jackson as Polonius (Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC, 2007).

Last night was a rarity: a rehearsal for which Hamlet wasn’t required. We blocked the entirety of Act 1, Scene 3, which introduces us to the family dynamics in the Polonius household. Before we began, we discussed some trifles, including whether “Polonius” was actually the chamberlain’s first name or his last. I suggested that perhaps the surname was Lonius, and that everyone at court just called him “Pa.”

He is certainly the Pa of his own domain — and as John (who plays our Lonius) confirmed, he approaches everything in his life with the same paternalistic cocktail of pride and envy. Whether he is bragging about his undergraduate performance as Julius Caesar or flailing to keep up with Hamlet’s wordplay, Polonius is a sucker and a fool in everyone’s eyes but his own, and he would be completely risible if he weren’t so dangerous.

We’re staging this scene from Ophelia’s point of view, and KO already has a very firm idea of how her character relates to both her dad and brother. She gets slapped down twice in a row by the men in her life, and for the same reasons — for having feelings, for being a sexual entity, for aspiring to life her own life. Against Laertes, she can hold her own, but Polonius, while laughable to us, is ruthless to his daughter — perhaps because she is the one thing he can control.

I want to emphasize Ophelia’s reactions to being controlled and objectified, but I also want to capitalize on the humour which the domestic scene affords. I’m doing this mostly through the use of props. First, when Laertes hugs his sister goodbye, he finds a letter from Hamlet tucked into her pocket, prompting this speech:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.

The gravity of his warning is undercut by a merry chase to retrieve the letter. Ophelia is pissed, but that doesn’t change her love for her brother.

She gets revenge quickly, though, when she opens up Laertes’s valise and flourishes a sexy 1920s pinup poster:

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

The siblings squabble again, but are reunited as Polonius enters, and they rush to return Laertes’s shameful pinup to his valise before the prudish patriarch catches sight of it. Laertes nearly escapes offstage but his father calls him back to deliver his famous list of life lessons. Before I imposed the next comic prop upon them, we talked a bit about the right tone to strike with this monologue: is it merely a series of cliches delivered by a senile father, or should it have the weight of sincerity and wisdom? Personally, I think his famous final maxim — “To thine own self be true” — sounds perfectly lovely when sewn onto a pillow, but it renders the whole speech comical when it comes at the end of such a flood of prescriptive advice.

The prop I added here doesn’t speak to that irony, exactly, but it highlights more of Polonius’s faults. In the midst of the speech (right around “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy”), he pulls out a billfold, with the intention of bestowing a parting gift upon his favourite child. Then he nabs Laertes’s satchel so he can stuff the money inside. As he fumbles with the latch, Ophelia and Laertes exchange panicked glances — will he get it open? Will he find the pinup? — and then, just as Ophelia offers to take over for Polonius, the old man changes his mind and stuffs the bills directly into Laertes’s breast pocket.

This sequence probably won’t be the gut-buster I’m hoping for, but it will help to strike a few important notes about the Ophelia-Polonius relationship (which is arguably far more important than Laertes-Polonius, since those two characters never share the stage again). Ophelia’s willingness to help her father, even against her own desires, is undercut by his inability to view her as anything more than a tool.

Or a liability. After Laertes exits, the first prop changes hands again: Polonius demands that Ophelia surrender the letter from Hamlet. He never saw it, but he’s shrewd enough to intuit that she’s hiding something when Laertes bids her farewell with the words, “Remember well what I have said to you.” Polonius: crafty enough to outwit his own children, but in the end, no match for the Son of Denmark.


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