"This above all: to thine ownself be true" What the heck does this mean?

"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.”
Sure, it sounds beautiful, deep and brilliant, but what does it mean? How am I true, or not, to myself?

Does it have anything to do with "keepin it real’?

FIIK dude, never understand when someone quotes something at me, but I’m just thick

Above all else, be honest with yourself… then, you are unlikely to be dishonest with others.


In a word: integrity. If you behave in a way that you know is wrong, you undermine your ability to do right by others. Far from “beautiful”, I think it’s an extremely demanding proposition that few achieve–and it goes far beyond the pop psychology slogan of “be yourself”.

I think that Doghouse is absolutely right when he says that it’s a demanding proposition that few achieve. Shakespeare knew this, too, and illustrated the fact by putting those words in the mouth of Polonius, a two-faced sneak who is–of course–completely blind to his own ethical failure.

Be genuine.
Polonius said this because he was far removed from it.

Out of the mouths of babes…

I think it is a beautiful statement, and my favorite of Polonius’ lines, though it is clearly used by him in idle pedantry. However, while I agree that it does go beyond “Just be yourself”, it is the very essence of this ideal; often “Be yourself” is interpreted as “Do whatever”, but the true maxim is more demanding than that.

I also like it when Skipper sings the line in the musical version of “Hamlet” performed by the Gilligan’s Island theatre troupe:

there’s just one other thing
you have to do
to thine own self
be true

I also think that what it really means is that we all know within ourselves what is right and what is wrong. Being true to yourself means not doing what you know to be wrong and then trying to make excuses later to try to justify your mistake. If you make a mistake, own up to it.

Do what’s right when no one else is looking…that’s being true to yourself.

I’ve always taken it to mean that he wants his son to have the courage of his convictions. He wants him to follow his conscience.

My copy has a comment about this line from the editor. His take is that Polonius’ advice is meant to sound deep at first glance, but is actually kind of pithy and hollow. Polonius is meant to be seen as a meddling busybody who interferes in things he should stay out of. Your quote comes in the middle of a bunch of chestnuts that he’s imparting to his son as he’s getting ready to leave the castle. Taken in the middle of all of this (Polonius fires off about a dozen quick bits of advice) I can sort of see the editor’s point.

Like you said, it sounds like one of those “quotey” statements. (Well, it is)

But first, you have to define what myself is ?

Are your convictions and morality a separate package from the rest of your character’s foundations ?


Your actions and thoughts both define who your self is ?

In case of the latter, the quote is redundant.

Would the editor be Harold Bloom? I remember that in The Closing of the American Mind, he argued that Shakespeare himself regarded Polonius’ advice as patently silly on its face, and deliberately placed this kind of bad advice “in the mouth of an old fool”.

Well, let’s face facts. Polonius didn’t follow his own advice, nor did he trust his son to do so (he sends a spy to go check up on him). However, I’ve seen interpretations that have Polonius as anything from a bumbling idiot to an -exceedingly- crafty politician who is only -playing- at being an idiot.

Semi-off-topic, but one of the best examples of the latter was durring an open-air performance of Hamlet I saw a few years ago. It all was shown in a little no-dialogue moment. The King and Polonius are getting ready to spy on Hamlet, who is approaching. They want to hide behind an arras, which is somethat akwardly hung on the wall. The king keeps trying to pull it down and can’t. Polonius gets a frustrated look on his face, reaches up, and brings it down with one tug. The King suddenly gets a look like “Oh my ghod. You’ve been -playing- useless all along, haven’t you?” The look was absolutely terrified, and gave the relationship between the two characters an interresting extra depth.

Taken in context(the entire speech in Act I. Scene III rather than the last three lines), it’s a joke to make Polonius look even more like a bumbling idiot than he has up until that point. This last bit of advice completely contradicts all the commands he gives Laertes up until that point. How can his son do everything he’s told, which would mean relying on other people’s decisions, and still be true to himself above all? Unless it’s Laertes nature to be a yes-man the advice is worthless.