Polonius As Lord Burghley

Mark Alexander

Text excerpts are reproduced under provisions of 17 USC 107, pertaining to the fair use of a copyrighted work, for purposes of criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, research, and non-profit educational purposes and are not intended for use of a commercial nature.

Part One: A Brief Discussion - On Discovering Genuine Topical Allusions

Part Two: The Arguments from 1869 to 1981

Part Four: The Avoidance of Strong Arguments Since 1981

Notes on this Page

Part Three: Corambis, Polonia, and Comparing Arguments

A Bit of History on the Treatment of Corambis

Lilian Winstanley mentioned Corambis in her 1921 book Hamlet and the Scottish Succession, but she did not make the connection with Burghley's motto. (Winstanley 114).

E. K. Chambers also noted the first quarto's use of Corambis in his 1930 William Shakespeare, A Study of Facts and Problems, and he also set the stage for later scholars and critics to misdirect attention away from the strong circumstantial evidence for the Polonius/Burghley connection:

Two other divergences in Q1 are noteworthy. For the names of Polonius and his servant Reynaldo we get Corambis and and Montano. It is impossible that these should, as Tanger thought, be mishearings of the reporter. Many students have assumed that Corambis and Montano were the earlier names, but there is nothing to show this, and if I am right in supposing Q1 dependent on Q2, the chances are that it was the other way around. Shakespeare used the name Corambus in All's Well iv. 3. 185. There are two rather curious stage-directions in Q2, which may conceivably be relevant. At I.ii.1 comes 'Enter . . .Consaile: as Polonius, and his Sonne Laertes', and at II.i.1., 'Enter old Polonius, with his man or two'. These may be mere examples of indefiniteness, although Laertes would make an odd councillor. But it is also possible that, when the change was made in an acting version, the new names were roughly noted in the original manuscript, and were there misread by the compositor. Again the motive for the change is quite obscure. One can only suspect censorship, or the fear of censorship. Gollancz has suggested that Polonius and his worldly maxims may be a reflection of the Polish statesman Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius, whose De Optimo Senatore was translated as The Counsellor in 1598. If so, this is another reason for regarding Polonius as the original name.

Why this is *another reason* is not clear, since the original could easily have been Corambis (Q1 was published first, after all) and under the heat of the censors be changed to something more palatable and still ambiguous like Polonius. I think Shakespeare's audience may very well link the name Polonius with Polonia (Poland), but unless a number of strong circumstantial links can be identified to rival the links between Polonius and Burghley, the argument that Shakespeare was linking Polonius primarily to Goslicius's The Counsellor remains weak. But Chambers goes on with a passage we have already quoted, here presented in context:

It has often been thought that Polonius may glance at Lord Burghley, who wrote Certaine Preceptes, or Directions for the use of his son Robert Cecil. These were printed (1618) 'from a more perfect copie, than ordinarily those pocket manuscripts goe warranted by'. Conceivably Shakespeare knew a pocket manuscript, but Laertes is less like Robert Cecil than Burghley's elder son Thomas. And if the Chamberlain's men feared that Polonius would be taken for Burghley and Reynaldo for Robert Cecil, why should a change of name but not of character make a difference?

Good point!

I do not profess to solve the mystery. But some theatrical allusion to Polish affairs seemed to me a possible element in the trouble about The Isle of Dogs in 1597, and there might have been some reason for avoiding the appearance of another at any time during 1600-3. (Chambers 417, 418)

Of course, there is no surviving copy of The Isle of Dogs, so Chambers here is engaging in pure speculation. At this point, it is worth noting that Chambers knew many of the strong arguments favoring the Polonius/Burghley connection, so he rightly presents the probability, even though he reveals only two of the strong arguments. His speculation on the Polish connection, by comparison, is weak and certainly not enough to persuade many later scholars such as Dover Wilson, Hurstfield, and Rowse, all of whom had read Chambers. We will see what others in the 1980s and 1990s do with the Polish connection.

In 1942 in his book The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare, W.W. Greg writes about the first quarto: "In this text for some obscure reason the names Corambis and Montano were substituted for Polonius and Reynaldo." (Greg 66) That's it.

But in 1962, in the introduction to Hamlet: The First Quarto 1603, Albert Weiner gives it more thought:

Corambis and Montano in Q1 become Polonius and Reynaldo in Q2. A number of explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, but none has been very successful. It has been suggested that the reporter did not hear or transcribe the names properly, but this is too weak to be entertained even for a moment. Since Q1 is perfectly consistent with the names of Corambis and Montano, we must reject any explanation which depends upon error, whether the error be ascribed to hearing or transcribing. It has been suggested that Polonius and Reynaldo were caricatures of contemporary officials (Lord Burghley and Robert Cecil are the popular choice), and that the names Polonius and Reynaldo were similar to the nicknames of these officials. Burghley felt the thrust, put pressure on Shakespeare, and so the names were changed to Corambis and Montano.

It seems to me that the explanation must take into account the fact the Shakespeare wrote at least two versions of Hamlet. In his first version he used the names Corambis and Montano. For some obscure reason he changed the names in a later version. It is of course debatable whether Q1 is based on an earlier version than Q2 and, therefore, whether Corambis or Polonius came first; but there seems to be no evidence to accuse anyone but the author of the change of names. (Weiner 51)

I think Weiner is right that the author changed the names. Corambis is a much more direct and personal swipe at Burhgley. Polonius on the other hand is closer to some rather public nicknames that carry less of a personal swipe.

But Weiner seems to be unaware of Burghley's motto, so he fails to make that link as well. He also fails to make the links to Thomas and Anne, so all round he seems to have missed most of the strong arguments favoring the Polonius/Burghley connection, all of which had been publicly advanced by this time. (The earliest link between Corambis and Burghley's motto that I can find is in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter of April 1950 in an article by J. Shera Atkinson. I have yet to find a single Stratfordian willing even to mention this circumstantial link, even in a refutation!) 1

The First Attempt at a Comprehensive Refutation

The first real attempt to refute the Polonius/Burghley connection that I have found is in Harold Jenkin's 1982 "Introduction" and in his "Longer Notes" to The Arden Shakespeare Hamlet. I quote the huge paragraph on pages 34 and 35, with my commentary:

There remains the substitution of the names Corambis and Montano for Polonius and Reynaldo. The general assumption that Q1 preserves the original names, natural enough when it was thought to be an earlier version of the play, often persists now that it is recognized as derivative. But the thing we must be clear about is that, whatever occurred in the Ur-Hamlet, Polonius, not Corambis, was the original name in Shakespeare's play.

This is a rather strong and incredible statement given that there is no doubt that Q1 was published prior to Q2. Q1 may very well have been derivative of Q2 to some extent, but Jenkin's fails to explain why the name change had to have been in reverse order. Whatever the status of an Ur-Hamlet, Jenkins offers absolutely no evidence that counters the idea that Corambis was the original name.

And since Shakespeare very often departed from the nomenclature of his sources, the problem in any case is not why he but why Q1 made the change. No satisfactory solution has ever been suggested. It is difficult to think that a reporter who had acted in the play would forget the name of so important a character as Polonius; but we who are used to seeing it in stage-directions and speech-headings might do well to note that it occurs only five times in Shakespeare's dialogue and always in passages which are ill remembered in Q1 There is no instance where Corambis is simply slotted in in place of it: its elimination, in a memorial text, may have been less purposeful than it is usual to suppose. Yet with Reynaldo also replaced by Montano, the one thing we can feel certain of is that the double substitution is part of a single process; and a double forgetting is perhaps less probable than some now irrecoverable design (whether on the part of the reporter or, perhaps more probably, of the stage version he was recalling).

Jenkins is an admirable editor, but the first sentence here is rather odd to say the least. One gets the feeling that Jenkins is going to great pains to establish a foundation for something. Jenkins does not mention the Corambis/motto connection, so he sees no satisfactory solution for the existence of Corambis. Since every accomplished Shakespeare editor is also accomplished in Latin, it is amazing that none seem to have perceived, even without the motto connection, that Corambis would indicate a "double-hearted" (i.e., deceitful) character.

The chance of a topical allusion is always alluring to commentators; but the notion that Polonius, on the strength of his similar role at court, was a caricature of Burghley is sheer conjecture; 1 and in any event, a caricature would not be concealed by a change of name.

[The footnote is discussed below.] Jenkins reveals his intent, it seems to me. He has been laying a foundation to distract attention away from any implications the name Corambis may have regarding a possible Polonius/Burghley connection. He makes the sweeping claim based on his authority that it is all "sheer conjecture." He is right, however, that a name change would not conceal a caricature. I suspect it probable that Jenkins knows full well all of the strong arguments and is consciously constructing this paragraph to draw attention away from those.

Any personal satire must have lain in the name Polonius itself, presumably because it pointed, or was thought to point, to a man of Polish -- or Polonian -- connection; and if it could ever be shown that one such had an associate or underling who could be recognized in the name Reynaldo (which gets stress in each of Polonius's first three speeches to the man), the case might be held to be proved.

Whoa! Do you see what Jenkins has done? He is drawing all attention away from Corambis and putting it on Polonius. Then he presents Chambers' proposition concerning Polonia almost as if it were ready to be proved!

Otherwise the problem is likely to remain unsolved. Whatever the cause of the change, it is of course possible that the names in Q1, whether through design or confusion, revive those of the Ur-Hamlet. The one point in favour of supposing so is that Shakespeare must have come across the names somewhere, since he used them shortly after, Montano for a character in Othello and Corambus (perhaps the correct form) incidentally in All's Well that Ends Well (IV.iii. 153). But we can have no assurance that these names were in the Ur-Hamlet, or even that the Ur-Hamlet had a Reynaldo character at all.

That Jenkins is primarily concerned in the entire paragraph with the name change is confirmed by the passage above. I think this focus strongly suggests that he was aware of the Corambis/motto connection. Also note his reference to All's Well where a "Corambus" is glancingly mentioned in a list of names. (Chambers mentioned this as well.) Jenkins suggests that "Corambus" is the "correct form" (whatever that means -- he gives us no reason as to how anyone could detect such a thing). His "correct form" conveniently replaces the "i" with a "u", which works to remove the "bis" that supplies the basis for "double." Now, to the footnote on the same page:

1. This was believed to be supported by an analogy between Burghley's Precepts for his son and the 'precepts' delivered by Polonius to Laertes. But now that these have been shown to derive from a long literary tradition, a reflection upon any individual can no longer be supposed. See r. iii. 58-80 LN. Gollancz (A Book of Homage, pp. 173-7) believed that Corambis was Burghley and that by a change of name Shakespeare, writing after Burghley's death in 1598, directed the portrait at The Counsellor of the 'Polonian' Goslicius (English translation 1598). But since the change, as I have insisted, was in the opposite direction, it could not introduce, though it might remove, an allusion to a Pole. See Dramatis Personae, Polonius, LN.

For him to say that Polonius's precepts have been "proved" to derive from a "long literary tradition" without citing a source appears rather deceptive. Of the strong arguments favoring a Polonius/Burghley connection, he presents only one (the Precepts, which is the most famous) and makes the implied claim that somehow it has been shown that Shakespeare had no one in mind when he created those precepts presented by Polonius. And that last sentence is quite remarkable. Acoording to his reasoning, since he "insists" that the name change went from Polonius to Corambis, Gollancz is wrong! 2

The "Longer Note"

Jenkins best and most interesting arguments appear in the "Longer Notes" section on pages 421-422,

In Progress

On to Part Four: The Avoidance of Strong Arguments Since 1981


1. I have looked through several dozen Stratfordian biographies and critical texts for discussions on the links between Polonius and Burghley. I have referenced all of those that do make such mention. If the reader knows of any texts that contain refutations of those links prior to 1982, please let me know. Interestingly, four books attacking anti-Stratfordian views from 1958-1965 make no mention of links between Polonius and Burghley. (Frank Wadsworth's The Poacher from Stratford, H. N. Gibson's The Shakespeare Claimants, James MacManaway's The Authorship of Shakespeare, and Milward W. Martin's Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?) return

2. As far as I can tell, in their 1997 William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor completely manage to avoid mentioning the change from Corambis to Polonius in their 7-page, two-column essay (in small type) that discusses almost every other significant difference between Q1 and Q2. (Wells 396-402) That name change has such an interesting history of discussion that to not mention it is, at minimum, an astonishing lapse of scholarship. return

Copyright © 1997-2003 by Mark Alexander. All Rights Reserved.
Text on this entire web site may be downloaded for personal and educational use only.