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In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, several characters exhibit the signs of possible psychological disorders, such as Prince Hamlet, Ophelia, and Polonius. With Polonius, Shakespeare seems to characterize a sneaky, untrustworthy snake of a man. Upon further inspection, however, it seems likely that Polonius suffered from one or possibly more psychological disorders which drive him to the extremes of manipulating his daughter, sending someone to spy on his son, and becoming obsessed with Prince Hamlet and his madness.
While all of the scenes with Polonius serve to develop his character, certain moments illuminate his possible psychological state. While talking with the crazed Hamlet, Polonius mentions “how pregnant sometimes [Hamlet’s] replies are” (II.ii.106-107), indicating that even though Hamlet seems to be rambling in one of his fits of madness, Polonius believes there are certain patterns and hidden cues given which will shed light on the true cause of the prince’s insanity. Schizophrenia can affect people in many different ways, one of them making someone believe he or she discovers a hidden meaning or pattern that doesn’t exist. His obsession with breaking down Hamlet’s thoughts and actions cause him to appear almost paranoid and nearly obsessed because of his suspicion, which suggests that Polonius has some psychological traits very similar to schizophrenia. This personality trait is exhibited multiple times throughout the play as well. While conversing with Hamlet in the castle, Polonius admits he believes the prince “is far gone, far gone” (II.ii.188), yet continues to closely analyze each and every word uttered by Hamlet, and later decides to hide behind a curtain to spy on Hamlet and his mother. So whether he meant to or not, Shakespeare imparted Polonius with several traits and behaviors that, especially in modern times, could definitely warrant a psychological evaluation.
One other character attribute of Polonius that could possibly contribute to a psychological disorder is his perception of himself. In several scenes, Polonius displays his inflated ego and delusional perception of himself. For example, when the player originally performs the speech about Pyrrhus and Priam, Polonius interrupts the performance on a few separate occasions with his comments about the play, first complaining of the length, then complimenting the actor on his word choice, showcasing his exaggerated self-importance. Another example occurs when Polonius is asked by Hamlet if he had ever performed in theatre before. Polonius confidently responds that he “was accounted a good actor” (III.ii.96-97) for his performance of Julius Caesar when he was younger. These two scenes clearly reveal that Polonius is an arrogant and pompous man who could possibly suffer from a delusional perception of himself, which also characterizes those who suffer from schizophrenia. Additionally, while talking with Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius promises that he “will find where the truth is hid” (II.ii.155-157), once again showing off his overinflated ego. While there certainly is evidence that Polonius has schizophrenic tendencies, many of these cases seem much more typical of a narcissistic personality disorder. However, if Polonius simply is narcissistic, instead of schizophrenic, the narcissistic diagnosis fails to account for Polonius’s character flaw: the constant observation and analysis of Prince Hamlet’s every action and word that plays a much larger role and leads to his eventual demise.
Whether Shakespeare intended to portray Polonius as someone who suffers from mild schizophrenia, just a narcissist who is obsessed with promoting himself at every possible opportunity, or simply a scumbag of a man, evidence exists that can elicit a diagnosis of some sort of psychological disorder. Schizophrenia may seem extreme and far-fetched in some cases, but ultimately, much of the evidence presented reveals symptoms of the disorder, or the disorder itself.
In the end, Shakespeare, either intentionally or not, embodies Polonius as a self-absorbed character who deserves little to no respect. Shakespeare obviously achieves his goal of painting Polonius in a bad light, but perhaps in light of his possible psychological disorders, we should not feel disgust toward Polonius, but instead empathize with him because his psychological health drove him to such extremes.
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