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Featured Poem: Give thy thoughts no tongue from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Written by Rachael Norris, 23rd September 2019

This week's Featured Poem is an extract from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader, Chris Lynn.

This week we are looking at an extract from Hamlet which starts ‘Give thy thoughts no tongue'... The words are spoken by Polonius and is fatherly advice to his son Laertes who is heading off on a journey to France. So what does this advice mean to us? Every line is very rich. We’ve not got time to look at it all but let’s consider a few key lines...

‘Give thy thoughts no tongue’

In other words, I’m reading this as ‘don’t say everything you think’. So if this is sound advice, one of two things must be true: a warning that says ‘don’t trust your thoughts’, or, ‘don’t trust how your thoughts will be received’. I noticed how there’s a preoccupation in the social world with being perceived by others. I know how we outwardly project ourselves is something we all have to negotiate but does it come easily to us?

‘Nor any unproportioned thought his act’

I’m also really interested in that word ‘unporportioned’ and wondered what an unproportioned thought might be? I think we all modify our thoughts, and shine them up before we put them out into the world. Is our social filter something that helps makes our thoughts ‘proportioned’ and palatable for others? You don’t need me to describe a world where everyone says everything they think all the time, or if they acted out their every inclination!

Throughout the whole passage, there’s a sense of holding back, ‘keep your cool son’ - in other words, keep yourself at arms length, don’t give too much away. There is a sense of balance though ‘do this, but not too much’. This makes me think that the best advice is often nuanced, dependent and allows for the complexity of life and for circumstances to be accounted for.

However, we do have a beautiful moment of clarity at the end:

‘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.’

‘This above all’ must be noted! ‘To thine ownself be true’. Be yourself or be true to yourself and ‘it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’. I like this image of the night following the day, both inevitable and natural – you can’t help but be true. When I think of the times when I’ve felt like I’ve been myself in the moment, or have felt completely understood, it has felt so simple and easy. A feeling that is fleeting, like a sunset, but so satisfying. ‘To thine ownself be true’ feels easier to say than do perhaps!

There are so many more rich lines and unexpected words to consider here, amongst a Shared Reading group if you can, where we can hopefully glimpse parts of our truest selves.

Give thy thoughts no tongue (from Hamlet)

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.

by William Shakespeare

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