‘To thine own self be true’ is a line from act 1 scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. It is spoken by King Claudius’ chief minister, Polonius as part of a speech where he is giving his son, Laertes, his blessing and advice on how to behave whilst at university.
It is a speech that contains a number of different well known Shakespeare quotes, such as ‘Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,’ ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be,’ and ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’ fill the speech. Polonius’ advice is summed up with the lines: ‘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.’
Here is the full text of Polonius’ speech:
There, my blessing with thee.
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look 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 unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear ’t that th’ opposèd 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 expressed 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 own self 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.
The lessons in Polonius’ ‘To thine own self be true’ speech are generally thought of as good advice, which is why parts of it are so often quoted. After all, what could be more sound than advice which counsels one to be careful before speaking out? Or if you avoid lending or borrowing money you are more likely to keep your friends. And, of course, being true to oneself is a noble aspiration.
Aside from the content of the speech, what makes these words so interesting is the fact that they come from Polonius. In the first place, Polonius is a bore, and all of the wonderful advice is probably not even being heard by his children as they know how he goes on about everything. In the staging of Hamlet the other actors on stage with Polonius – his son, Laertes and daughter, Ophelia – often stand behind him and make mocking gestures as he speaks the words.
As well as being a bore, Polonius is an unpleasant piece of work. Immediately after making this speech, he sends someone to Paris to spy on Laertes as he enjoys his student life. Polonius also spies on his daughter, sets her up for entrapment, interferes with her romantic life, and ultimately contributes to her suicide.
Polonius meets a sticky end while spying on Hamlet in a confidential conversation with his mother. Hamlet hears someone hiding behind a curtain and stabs whoever it is. That turns out to be Polonius.
Coming from Polonius, this advice to be true to oneself is pompous, hypocritical, and empty. It is a tribute to Shakespeare that he can produce a speech that is quoted for four hundred years as definitive wisdom about human behaviour although it comes from a character who is a disreputable and hypocritical empty vessel.
The phrase has evolved, and in recent years ‘being true to yourself’ has become a common, fashionable term. It’s used to mean not worrying about pleasing other people, or living by someone else’s rules or standards, but rather living as your natural self, without compromise.
Other money mentions in Shakespeare
Questions of money and its value appear frequently among Shakespeare’s characters:
In Henry IV Part 2 Falstaff asks to borrow money from the Lord Chief Justice:
“I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse: borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable”
The response from the judge is:
“Not a penny, not a penny: you are two impatient to bear crosses.”
Shakespeare understood how borrowing to pay one’s debts just sinks one deeper and deeper into debt and there’s no release once it begins to go that way. Falstaff and the judge both understand that too.
In Othello, Iago cons money out of the wealthy Roderigo. Roderigo has tried to court Desdemona and has been rebuffed by her father. She is in love with Othello and has married him and gone with him to Cyprus where the Venetian army is based. Iago tells Roderigo that their love can’t last and that he should go to Cyprus too. Roderigo does so and becomes frustrated by the lack of progress, considering that he is paying Iago for that service. Iago tells him to get more money because it’s going to work. He tells Roderigo.
“Put money in thy purse,”
He repeats it over and over again. It does not work out for Roderigo and it never could have. It was all a con.
In As You Like It the poor shepherd, Corin, says
“He that wants money, means, and content, is without three good friends.”
He is saying that money isn’t the most important thing in life: happiness and work are just as important. Shakespeare, himself, had all that.
What is not expressed is the fact that you can’t deceive yourself fully, a part of you will never be content with self-deception, and “truth will out”. Smoking was ince an acceptable addiction, but you won’t be able to give up unless you truly want to, and if you secretly don’t want to give up, you will find an excuse to start again. We can’t cheat ourselves, our conscience won’t let us.