Clothes make the man Introduction
I'm Polonius. I'm a Danish Lord who is pretty self-absorbed and really impressed with the sound of my own voice. I love giving advice even if people aren't after it. And you know what I think?
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy 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 of a 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 ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee! (1.3.55-81)
Who Said It and Where
This may all sound like really serious, fatherly stuff, but played by the right actor, Polonius's self-absorbed, rambling, and dull speech can become completely hilarious. Let's face it: Hamlet needs some comic relief and Polonius certainly delivers it. We've all rolled our eyes at our parents before. They mean well but sometimes they just drone on and on and on and on and—okay, you get the point. They love to lecture you, even if you don't need it or have already heard it a billion times.
That's exactly what Polonius is doing here. His son, Laertes, is about to depart for Paris, and he has some dear parting words for him. It's really just a lot of long-winded advice: listen more than you talk, don't borrow or lend money, don't bling yourself out (or be gaudy), and be true to yourself.
Shakespeare's original audience would have understood that someone who is not true to himself is false, or to put it in our language: a phony. If you borrow someone else's money to buy a bunch of cool new stuff, you're really just pretending you can afford all that stuff, since the money wasn't yours to begin with. And Polonius doesn't want his son to forget it. Sound a little like your parents?
Polonius likes to dish advice, but he sure can't take it. He pays someone to spy on his son and spies on his daughter himself, with a little help from the king. Given Polonius's penchant for spying on his children and Hamlet in order to curry favor with King Claudius, he's not really in any position to be talking about being real about who you are. The guy's a poser.