Sister Mary Annette and Shakespeare’s Ambiguous Advice

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”: Sister Mary Annette read Hamlet to our 8th grade class, and since Polonius’s advice had the imprimatur of both Sister and Shakespeare, we took it to be infallible. Sister’s point, if not Polonius’s, was that we would all wind up friendless, friends dropping like flies as we evolved into our self-centered young adult lives, this being the way of the world, and thus if we were lucky enough to hatch a true friend, we should latch on to them. But who wants to be grappled with a hoop of steel? One grapples an antagonist, but one’s friend?

Why did Shakespeare feed so much seemingly sage advice to the mouths of fops or bumbling fools? There’s an argument over Polonius – was he shrewd or foolish? But when it comes to the play, as Harold Bloom observes, “It is very difficult to generalize about Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its opposite” (409).

Perhaps our aversion to grappling hooks explains our independence. And here’s another piece of Polonius advice, and where would today’s bankers and the stimulus package be if we adhered to it?: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” This Polonius pearl is often repeated without the character’s explanation: “For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” The stimulus package is the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the banker king. It’s not clear that Polonius follows his own advice, for “Give thy thoughts no tongue” he ignores, though he does “Give every man thy ear”; in fact, that’s his undoing.

Though our 8th grade long preceded Facebook, perhaps Sister foreshadowed Facebook’s hoops. She also read to us that year A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield (her favorite Copperfield characters were Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick, whose optimistic and practical advice always found an appropriate place in our classroom), so we had more on our minds than old Polonius. Alas, we cannot befriend Mary Annette now in this Facebook, but she knew, as did Shelly, that “We look before and after, And pine for what is not.” Of Facebook, she surely would remind us of the closing of Act III, scene iii, that “Words without thoughts never to Heaven go,” and who would know better than a murderous king?

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