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The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character

From The System of Shakespeare's dramas. by Denton Jaques Snider. St. Louis: G. T. Jones and Company.

The death of Polonius has given great difficulty, and even offense; its object should be fully comprehended, for it not only illustrates the character of Hamlet, but also is one of the leading motives of the play. No other incident shows so deep a design, or is so appropriate for its purpose. Hamlet, acting blindly through impulse, slays the wrong one; the result is — guilt. This warning, therefore, speaks from the rash act: Let no rational being give up control to impulse which cannot see, cannot distinguish, the nature of a deed. Man must, therefore, reflect before proceeding to action. But, through reflection, Hamlet is unable to slay the right one; thus he cannot perform the great injunction laid upon his soul. Such is his dilemma; if he acts, it is through impulse, and he falls into guilt; if he reflects, he cannot act — that is, he cannot do the Great Deed of his life, and so commits, at least, a sin of omission.

What will be Hamlet's solution? He tells it himself in the latter part of the play. Throw yourself back into impulse, and abandon control through intelligence. But what will be the result of such a doctrine? Death — the thinking being who cannot act from thought must perish.

Through the death of Polonius, Hamlet has committed the very crime which he was seeking to punish; the son of a father murdered has himself murdered a father. Retribution will call up against him a son, at whose hands he will meet his fate. So this incident offers the profoundest illustration of Hamlet's character, and, at the same time, furnishes the motive of his death. Polonius deserved to die for his offences but Hamlet had no right to slay him.

How to cite this article:
Denton, Jaques Snider. The System of Shakespeare's dramas. St. Louis: G. T. Jones and Company, 1877. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < >.


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Do You Agree? ... "It is constantly asserted that Hamlet wept over the body of Polonius ... but there is no warrant in the text for the assertion. It is based on some words of the Queen (iv. i. 24), in answer to the King's question, 'Where is he gone?'" A. C. Bradley. Read on...


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