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Toying with Polonius

From The Riddles of Hamlet by Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston, Stratford & Co.

Hamlet observes the old chancellor shuffling forward in haste, and, having called the attention of the courtiers, says in an undertone: "Look! that great baby you see coming is not yet out of his swaddling clouts." After prophesying the nature of his errand, he begins in the presence of Polonius to address his young friends with earnest but irrelevant words so as to blind him to the fact that they had been speaking of him. Noticing the old man's anxiety to communicate the news, he roguishly forestalls him by speaking of Roscius, a famous Roman actor. Polonius at once blurts out that the actors have come, at which the Prince exclaims "buz, buz!" an interjection often used against loquacious bores who were given to common places and trite tales. "The expression," says Blackstone, "was used at Oxford when any one began a story that was generally known before."

The old man on the supposition of Hamlet's malady, ignores his sarcastic retort, and proceeds to bepraise the actors as the best in the world for all kinds of Plays, and pedantically enumerates the many divisions and subdivisions of the drama, as found in the license given to the King's Company in 1603. But unsatisfied with these divisions, Polonius with vain display adds others of his own: as, "scenes individable or unlimited" according as they observed the Unity of Place or not; plays of "writ or of liberty," that is classic or romantic dramas, whether written or improvised. For all of them these actors are the only players. With Seneca and with Plautus they are equally at home; the former excelled in tragedy as the latter did in comedy, and both in Shakespeare's time were the fashionable models for every playwright. With ironical admiration of the chancellor's literary judgment, Hamlet exclaims:

"O Jephthah, {1} judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!"

Polonius is bewildered for the moment. The treasure is his daughter whom, like Jephthah, he would sacrifice. The words quoted are from a popular ballad current at the time. The first stanza runs as follows:

"I have read that many years ago,
When Jephthah, judge of Israel,
Had one fair daughter and no more,
Whom he loved passing well;
As by lot, God wot,
It came to pass, most like it was,
Great wars there should be,
And who should be the chief but he, but he."

By this quizzical allusion to the daughter, Hamlet confirms Polonius in his pet theory, and, continuing to play with the old diplomat, further puzzles him by equivocal expressions, and seeing him all amazed, suddenly cuts off the dialogue, and turns to welcome the approaching Players.


{1} Jephte was a warrior of Galaad. Having been chosen to conduct a campaign against the Ammonites, "the spirit of the Lord came upon him. He made a vow to the Lord saying: If thou wilt deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord". On his triumphant return to his home in Mispha the first person to meet him was his only daughter. The common opinion is that Jephte immolated his daughter in fulfilment of his vow; but according to another opinion his vow was kept by the daughter being consecrated to a life of virginity. This seems plausible from the verse (Judges) XI, 37, where she asks for two months in which to bewail her virginity; and by verse 39, where we are told that according to his vow, she knew no man, which was in consonance with a statute in Israel.


How to cite this article:
Blackmore, Simon Augustine. The Riddles of Hamlet. Boston: Stratford & company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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