As preposterous as calling Shakespeare “The Great Bard” is, there are some nuggets in his dramas which strike chords in minds. No, not hearts. Minds.
In one of Shakespeare’s grandest ironies, Polonius gives the following advice to his son, Laertes, before he heads off to Paris:
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.”
~ Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, 78-80
So, what does it mean? Not what do we think it says on the tongues of the self-excusing self-serving, but to us, the mere mortals?
Let’s get it wrong, first.
Today’s most prominent use for the quote is to excuse ourselves from the damage in our wake when we pursue goals most often motivated by folly, desire or egocentricity. It is a platitude we hear from our friends and family, who may or may not agree with our actions, acquiescing to our (bad) behavior.
How likely is it Polonius is telling his son who is setting sail for the city of romance (This was long before the lights.) to follow whatever his heart may desire? It was the Middle Ages. Europe was not the posh tourist Mecca it is today. With the Black Death a reality, he was not giving Laertes carte blanche to engage in whichever debauchery was offered.
To thine own self be true does not mean do what you want.
True and False
Our desires are not something we generally broadcast and share with our fellow man. Likewise, we are not often in the business of granting others’ desires. The comparison of being true to ourselves and others means we are to be true to something else, something more substantial than whimsy. If it is not our desires to which we should be true, what is it? The answer lies in What is false?
When we think about being false to others, the first thought is lying. In the myriad methods of lying, the falsehood we project to others is to what Polonius refers. Perfectly clear, no?
What you see is…
False. Before we can genuinely be an asset to another, we have to know our own capacity, capability and compassion. If we do not know who we are, we cannot possibly do that.
A squire born of a knight and his lady may never have been given the opportunity to embrace his inner pacifist. The serf born on the pasture land of the fiefdom would never be given the chance to sit on a governing body. An earl’s daughter would not be schooled and encouraged to play music, despite a virtuoso talent.
Today, the caste system has fallen away in most of the world. We are free to choose the careers and life paths which we feel are true. We are not bound by our born position to do anything or be a specific way. We must choose wisely.
Bait and Switch
We all have beliefs we hold. To us they are the sacred portions of our lives we use to make decisions. We use them to bring up our children. They are also the measuring stick against which we measure Quaint and Mate. What happens when we are not true to ourselves?
When we belie our beliefs with our actions, we give others a false impression of who we are. They trust us because they believe they know how we will react to their actions. When react out of character, because we have been projecting a façade, they feel rightly their trust has been violated.
Some people have no issue being true to themselves. The pacifist rarely works in the weapons factory. The vegetarian is an unlikely employee of a slaughterhouse. Not all such choices are easy.
Before we can be true to our fellow man, we must be true to ourselves.
This above all: to thine own self be true,”
While many cannot tell you definitely what they believe, they are vocal about what they will not tolerate. The cannot abide list is important in Parents, Mates and Quaints; however, it is not enough to form truly solid foundations for relationships. Why not?
If we form alliances based on negative concepts, we are not guaranteeing the allies will be in agreement on the concepts we do endorse. Just because you meet someone who hates gambling, does not mean the person will love dogs, eat sushi and support charity. Your common negativity can and will lose its luster in the absence of positive commonality.
It takes character to know our convictions and stand by them. It takes strength… to thine own self be true.
When we are true to ourselves, we are never false to our fellow man. Our actions speak of our character. Make those actions broadcast the truth.
What are your top three convictions which govern your life? Do your life choices mirror those convictions? Can Mate or BFF say the same thing? What would it take for your life to be completely true to yourself?
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