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Polonius as Anti-Close Reader: Toward a Poetics of the Putz

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In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince famously expresses a poetics and a theory of theater and of the arts, extolling, for example, a naturalistic method of acting. Less well known is that Polonius, the bungling and long-winded courtier, also expresses a poetics—albeit a poetics that the play, or at least Hamlet, constantly mocks. Polonius’s poetics offers a negative model, suggesting what the reception of art and literature and even the world should not be like. Polonius is an anti-close reader in that he leaps quickly to action (usually by imposing past, commonplace wisdom onto present situations) and claims a proto-empiricist distance from the objects of his study. What he consistently rejects is patient receptivity to the unknown particularity of poetry, people, and events.

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  1. 1.

    The real etymology is different: ab omen, away from omen, as pointed out in Shakespeare, Hamlet, 298. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text.

  2. 2.

    For recent work on early modern political counsel, see Kiséry, Hamlet’s Moment; and Rose, Politics of Counsel.

  3. 3.

    “How abundant and how important is the doubt produced in the world of the meaning of this syllable, hoc [this]!” wrote Michel de Montaigne, referring to debates swirling around the words of Eucharistic benediction, “This is my body” [Hoc est corpus meum], Matthew 26:26; “Apologie de Raymond Sebond,” (Montaigne, Essais, 2:192).

  4. 4.

    On Polonius’s pompous (and misplaced) confidence that he can discern cause from circumstance, see Hutson, Circumstantial Shakespeare, 3.

  5. 5.

    Erasmus, De Ratione Studii [Upon the Right Method of Instruction], 162.

  6. 6.

    On the material aspects of tablebooks in Hamlet, see Stallybrass et al., “Hamlet’s Tables.”

  7. 7.

    The attention Polonius does pay to language in other scenes comes in the form of rapid judgments that suggest he is holding a word or a phrase up to some pre-given standard. For example, Polonius responds to Hamlet’s use of the phrase “beautified Ophelia” in his letter: “that’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase” (2.2.109), without further explanation.

  8. 8.

    Even Goneril’s initial claim that her love for her father lies beyond words (1.1.55) reads as artifice, as a deployment of the rhetorical device often called the inexpressibility topos.

  9. 9.

    In a related mode, Macbeth tries to justify his killing the king’s guards by accusing his passionate love for outrunning “the pauser, reason” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, 2.3.112). The pause for thought can also be faked and become a mere outward sign divorced from any inward reality—the kind of mere “seeming” that Hamlet warns can mislead people. Sending Hamlet away to England, Claudius says that the decision “must seem / Deliberate pause” (4.3.8–9).

  10. 10.

    There is, among the romantics, precedent for this account of Hamlet as a dithering deep thinker. For example, August Wilhelm von Schlegel writes that Hamlet’s “calculating consideration, which exhausts all the relations and possible consequences of a deed, must cripple the power of acting”; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, admitting to having “a smack of Hamlet myself,” remarks that “Hamlet’s character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the practical.” See Bate, Romantics on Shakespeare, 308, 161, 160.

  11. 11.

    The play associates the word “rash” with violence: Hamlet, grappling with Laertes in the grave, tells him that “though I am not splenative rash, / Yet have I in me something dangerous” (5.1.250–51). And the word recurs when, aboard the ship, Hamlet reverses the commission so that it orders not his death but the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Here the connotation is more positive, but the association with violence remains: Hamlet says he behaved “rashly” but, since he thereby saved his own life, “praised be rashness for it” (5.2.6–7).

  12. 12.

    See Kiséry, Hamlet’s Moment, 64–65, 71.

  13. 13.

    On Renaissance commonplaces, see esp. Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books.

  14. 14.

    Lesser and Stallybrass, “First Literary Hamlet,” 376–78.

  15. 15.

    MacDonald, Tragedie of Hamlet, 79; cited in Hamlet, 244.

  16. 16.

    Hamlet’s method of working may loosely parallel in this respect the way Shakespeare himself worked with inherited texts, including with the so-called Ur-Hamlet. See Smith, “Ghost Writing.”

  17. 17.

    Shapiro, Culture of Fact.

  18. 18.

    Shapiro, 26.

  19. 19.

    Exact Account of the Trial (1689), 25, quoted in Shapiro, Culture of Fact, 27. Shapiro explains how this understanding of the jury as “fact evaluators” represented a departure from the jury’s prior role: “Jurors were not initially fact evaluators but rather ‘knowers’ of the facts, selected locally because they were expected to bring some prior knowledge of the facts and/or litigants to the trial” (11). See also Hutson, Invention of Suspicion.

  20. 20.

    Bacon, Works, 4:19, 54.

  21. 21.

    Daston and Galison, “Image of Objectivity,” 82.

  22. 22.

    Nagel, View from Nowhere.

  23. 23.

    Kiséry, Hamlet’s Moment, 87, 137.

  24. 24.

    Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 73: “the observer enters into a contract with the work, agreeing to submit to it on condition that it speak.” Also, see Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 43.

  25. 25.

    See also 2.2.46–49. For a discussion of this image of the hunt, see Lewis, Vision of Darkness, 43–111.

  26. 26.

    Bacon, Works, 4:29. Alan Fisher associates Polonius in passing with Bacon for yet another reason: they both use “indirections” in order to “find directions out” (2.1.63). See Fisher, “Shakespeare’s Last Humanist,” 45.

  27. 27.

    Focusing on Othello, Joel Altman emphasizes this dynamic and, specifically, the figure of hysteron proteron. See Altman, Improbability of Othello, 184–99.

  28. 28.

    Jarvis, “Adorno, Marx, Materialism,” 80. His focus is on materialism and mystification.

  29. 29.

    Moretti, Distant Reading, 165. Moretti situates his method as against close reading at 48–49.

  30. 30.

    “I mean…to examine nature herself and the arts upon interrogatories,” Bacon writes in Parasceve. See Bacon, Works, 4:263. For an extended discussion of the conflict in the late sixteenth century between poetry and empiricism, with reference to Moretti, see Eisendrath, Poetry in a World, 1–23; esp. 18–19.

  31. 31.

    Adorno, Minima Moralia, 77.

  32. 32.

    Nietzsche, Daybreak, 5. Reuben A. Brower describes close reading as slow reading. See Brower, “Reading in Slow Motion.”

  33. 33.

    Nietzsche, Daybreak, 5.

  34. 34.

    Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 7. Thanks to Anirudh Sridhar for directing my attention to this quotation.

  35. 35.

    Quoted in Nicholsen, Exact Imagination, Late Work, 19.

  36. 36.

    Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, viii.

  37. 37.

    For their insightful close reading of drafts of this essay, I am grateful to Derek Attridge, Julie Crawford, Heather Dubrow, Mir Ali Hosseini, Betsy Eisendrath, Anirudh Sridhar, and Timea Széll.


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Correspondence to Rachel Eisendrath .

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Eisendrath, R. (2021). Polonius as Anti-Close Reader: Toward a Poetics of the Putz. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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