Context is King

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. As expected, many people took to social media to celebrate the bard by relating their own experiences with the writings of Shakespeare and sharing some of their favourite passages from his works.

One post in particular caught my eye though:

Now, despite my own personal issues with this quote*, I understand why this person reveres these lines. In isolation, it expresses quite a noble sentiment – be true to yourself and you can’t go wrong.

But here’s the problem. It doesn’t appear in isolation.

It comes from a speech that Polonius gives his son Laertes before he departs for France in Act 1 Scene 3 in Hamlet. Here’s the rest of it:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy:
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend;
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all,—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

As you can see, Polonius’ advice comes at the end of a stack of vacuous, vapid statements, clearly diminishing the impact and profundity of the sentiment. It turns Polonius into the Elizabethan equivalent of those people who incessantly post motivational quotes printed over pictures of sunsets.

Besides being a walking cliché generator, Polonius is definitely not the sort of guy you want to be blindly taking advice from. The play sets him up as a windbag  – the sort of guy who claims that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ before launching into a pages-long tirade largely consisting of nonsense. His characterisation renders his words, regardless of their truth, insincere.

Furthermore, it’s a bit rich for him to advise anyone to be true to themselves in order to not ‘be false to any man’. This is a man who, later in the play, is stabbed by Hamlet after spying on him from behind a curtain. Sounds a lot like being false to someone to me. It renders Polonius’ earlier ‘sage’ advice ridiculous and deeply ironic, given the monumental hypocrite that he is proven to be.

All of which is to say, once we are aware of the context of the words [who says them, that persons true nature etc] our understanding of them is significantly altered. ‘To thine own self be true’ is a joke; we are invited to laugh at this pompous oaf who is dispensing advice that he clearly does not live up to himself. His own delusions of grandeur and wisdom make him an object of ridicule.

By not acknowledging the context of the words we use or the quotes we share, it’s easy to miss the point and have our meaning misconstrued. You can’t extract a message from its context without changing its meaning because messages don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it too.







*One of the rooms used for my university exams [I had two six-hour long exams in that room. Ironically enough, one was on Shakespeare] was a school assembly hall which happened to have ‘To thine own self be true’ emblazoned in big, black letters above a stage. Although I’m sure its intention was to be motivating, it tended to alternate between feeling vaguely, ominously threatening [live up to yourself or you’ll disappoint me] and incredibly disheartening [you’re going to get found out this time. No point in try because they’ll figure out you’re a fraud this time]. I do not have happy associations with that room, nor that quotation.






2 thoughts on “Context is King

  1. I really enjoyed your post! I am guilty of taking the Shakespeare quotes out of context sometimes and agree it is important to understand context. Ps I reviewed a book each day as part of Shakespeare week if you’re interested! Bronte

    1. Cheers. It’s easily done and I’m definitely guilty of doing the same. This just struck me as a particularly funny example of the mismatch between literal meaning and intended meaning.

      I’ll be sure to check that out.

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