Hamlet: “The best counsellors are the dead.”
“The best counsellors are the dead.”
So the long-serving Elizabethan and Stuart courtier, Sir Francis Bacon, concluded in his essay “On Counsel” in 1612. Bacon was not the first to use this maxim, often appearing in the Latin as “optimi consiliarii mortui”. At its deepest level, it was meant to suggest that the best source of counsel was the study of history.
Living counsellors, especially by the closing decades of the sixteenth century, had become unreliable figures: either ineffectual philosophically inclined humanists, or self-interested deceptive Machiavellians. The bare facts of history, stripped of personal concerns and fallibilities, were far more trustworthy. Of course, neither Bacon nor any of the other proponents of the phrase were likely unaware of the more morbidly blithe surface reading: “the best counsellor is a dead counsellor.”
Shakespeare’s titular protagonist, Hamlet, would be likely to agree, sending at least three counsellor-figures to their death over the course of the play. Counsellors generally do not do well in Hamlet, and one can approach the play as a trial of different approaches to providing advice and counsel. This was an important and widely explored theme in the sixteenth century which, by the time that Hamlet was written (c. 1599-1601), had come to the sort of darkly pessimistic conclusions expressed by Bacon.
One of the most essential foundational texts for the discussion of counsellors belonged to the ancient writer Plutarch. How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend was published frequently throughout the period, and it would appear Shakespeare was familiar with it, as he uses many of Plutarch’s archetypes in Hamlet. “Simple” flatterers are easy enough to distinguish, Plutarch sets out, they buzz around the king’s table and are “ready as flies to light in every dish.” This appears to be the template for the sycophantic but largely harmless Osric, identified as a “water-fly” who “stands at the King’s mess.”
Hamlet, established in the play as a student of the classics, appears to know Plutarch’s essay, and in his encounters with counsellors tests them against the trials that Plutarch sets out. For instance, Plutarch suggests that the flatterer “hath no one permanent seat in his manners and behaviour” and changes his opinions and actions “wholly to the humour of another”. He thus advises the reader to “show as if he likewise were transformed into diverse and sundry fashions”: Hamlet’s “antic disposition”. Osric fails this test in a discussion of the weather (Act 5, Scene 2). This “imitation”, Plutarch establishes “doth entice and draw” the flattered, as if “with a pipe or call”, and Hamlet accuses his feigned friends Rosencranz and Guildenstern of playing on him like “a pipe”.
But men like Osric, Rosencranz and Guildenstern are of little concern or worry (as Hamlet sets out in Act 4, Scene 2). The real threat comes from men who more effectively counterfeit friendship and deeply embed themselves in the machinations of the powerful, who (in Plutarch’s words): “will have an oar in every boat, and thinks he is to intermeddle in all matters; he hath a mind to be privy and party in all deep secrets; and in one word he carrieth himself like a grave Tragedian, and not as a Comical or Satirical player”. Enter Polonius.
Polonius fails the same test as Osric, when Hamlet points to a cloud, suggesting it looks like a camel, a weasel, a whale, all of with which Polonius readily agrees. Polonius, in fact, meets all of Plutarch’s criteria for the pernicious flatterer. He also combines the two sixteenth-century schools of thought on the “good counsellor” – the humanist philosopher and the Machiavellian schemer – showing how neither are satisfactory, and thus the best counsellors are the dead.
Polonius, famously, is a bumbling rhetorician, unable to affect the courtier’s cool and cultured demeanour as he lays out verbose moral precepts. This is most evident in his much-cited advice to Laertes. What is often missed, however, is that he follows up this lengthy advice with shocking instructions to his “fox”-like servant, Reynaldo, to use whatever deceitful means necessary to spy on his son, and so “your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth”. And, thus, Hamlet’s later jibe that Polonius is a “fishmonger” is indeed apt.
Of course, Polonius does not, as Hamlet would have him, “play fool nowhere but in his own house”, but in the king’s court as well, holding an impressively powerful role (set out in Act 1, Scene 2). Like the speech to Laertes, Polonius gives an embarrassingly long-winded and out of place philosophical speech to the king and queen (in Act 2, Scene 2). And once again, he ends this speech with an unnervingly immoral plot, this time to spy on Hamlet.
Plutarch had warned against flatterers who penetrate “the secret chambers and cabinets of women”, precisely the plan that Polonius lays out. Polonius hides himself not only within women’s chambers, but behind women themselves, including his daughter Ophelia, whom he instructs to “colour” her lowliness, to use the “visage” of devotion and piety, which can “sugar over the devil himself”, prompting Claudio, too, to reflect on the power of the “painted word”. All were commonly used metaphors in the sixteenth century to refer to deceptive rhetoric, often associated with Machiavelli. Hamlet, himself, calls Ophelia out on this strategy, ostensibly referring to women’s makeup, but also criticising the wider deceptions referred to by Polonius and Claudius; “I have heard of your paintings well enough, God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”
It is Polonius’s use of “the secret chambers of women” for his scheming that spells his downfall, stabbed behind the arras in the queen’s chamber by Hamlet. Having realized he had killed Polonius and not Claudius (who had at least some right to be there), Hamlet concludes in the same vein as Bacon, that Polonius is a better counsellor dead: “this Counsellor/ Is now most still, most secret, and most grave/ Who was in life a most foolish prating knave.”
A deeper analysis of this theme is offered in Joanne Paul, “The best counsellors are the dead: counsel and Shakespeare's Hamlet”, Renaissance Studies 30.5 (2016).
References to Hamlet from the 1604/5 Second Quarto edition published in Three-Text Hamlet, eds. Paul Betram and Bernice W. Kliman (1991).
References to Plutarch from the 1603 translation of The Morals by Philemon Holland.
Author has modernized throughout.