Shakespeare is funny. This is a lukewarm take at best, it’s true, but the comment I’ve heard is that you can tell the difference between a comedy and a tragedy by whether it’s possible to have a happy ending by the third act. This is because the plays are often extremely funny even when they have a high body count. My freshman high school English teacher taught us Romeo and Juliet by explaining all the dirty jokes in the first scene. Certainly there are characters well known for being comic relief. In Hamlet, of course, there’s the gravedigger, and to a certain extent Osric—such comic relief characters that they are Billy Crystal and Robin Williams respectively in the Branagh. What’s not as well known is that Polonius, he of the ponderous advice, was supposed to be funny as well.
A lot of his bits of advice are quoted a lot these days in all seriousness. You’re abjured to neither a borrower nor a lender be, to thine own self be true, and, since brevity is the soul of wit, be brief. What people are less likely to remember is that “brevity is the soul of wit” is in the sixth line of an eleven-line speech. Because Polonius is such a fool, in the Shakespearean sense, that he can’t take his own advice and doesn’t notice that he isn’t. He’s giving bad advice half the time and good advice buried in too much nonsense to be unearthed the other half.
Some of it is intended to be funnier to an Elizabethan audience than it would be to us, it’s true. In his advice to Laertes is buried the detail that the clothing of the elite of France is “the most select and generous.” Which, first, is contradictory—he’s saying that the clothing is both the fanciest and the most understated. Second, of course, is the rivalry between England and France; Laertes is on his way to Paris, and Polonius is telling him how to get by there, fine, but the English of approximately 1600 were not exactly fond of the French, and any praise of French nobility would be seen as a joke.
What’s more, that same speech does indeed end with “to thine own self be true,” fair, but it definitely says that you can’t be false to other people if you’re true to yourself. Which frankly is nonsense. You can lie to other people while still telling yourself the truth. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples. Frankly, I think that was Elizabeth’s foreign policy at the time—she knew she wasn’t going to marry any of those princes. Maybe it’s true that you shouldn’t borrow from friends, or loan to them, and I’ve definitely known friendships destroyed by that, but it’s hardly such a universal as all that and goodness knows there was plenty of borrowing and loaning going on at the time.
We could probably do this with several other characters in Shakespeare. Polonius is just the best known because he’s the one who gives the most advice in one of the best-known plays. I’ve heard there was a production done where, every time Polonius delivered one of these lines, the entire cast listening to him made it clear that they’d heard all this before and were rolling their eyes and mouthing along. That’s probably the best way of dealing with his character traits. It won’t stop people tattooing his advice onto their bodies, though.