23 Apr 2024

Shakespearean Advice

23rd April is Shakespeare’s birthday, and we are celebrating the day by looking at some of the bard’s most famous advice about how to behave. In Hamlet Polonius, the chief counsellor to the king, is depicted as conniving, scheming, lacking self-knowledge and something of a windbag. But despite these character deficiencies his speech to his son Laertes (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3), who is about to embark on a trip to France, contains many pearls of wisdom which have become precepts that are part of the English language. We’ve taken a look at Polonius’s advice about manners and behaviour and find that it still holds true today:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.”

•Think before you speak or act.

This advice is as pertinent as ever today when impulsiveness is aided and abetted by the instantaneous speed of virtual communication. Unfortunately, social media communications are frequently taking place within an isolated, de-contextualised space, removed from the mediating judgment of other people, which can mean that all too often we act on impulse. If we are angry, upset or outraged we are far more likely to communicate impulsively, without stopping to think about consequences. In the heat of the moment, we lose our ability to pause, think empathetically about our ‘victim’ or target, logically examine how our remark will make them feel, assess the magnitude of any potential fallout.

Be though 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.”

•Value true friendship and intimacy and don’t be beguiled by casual acquaintances.

Taking intimacy for granted is a sure-fire way to estrange; slapping your new boss on the back on your first day may well have you relegated to the post-room. If familiarity breeds contempt, over-familiarity propagates pure bile. Over-familiarity often masks, at best, off-putting insecurities and, far worse, a real idleness – investing in true friendship requires energy and commitment and there are no short cuts.

Developing a meaningful friendship involves listening attentively, offering unstinting support, being unfailingly loyal while knowing when lines must be drawn. Above all, friendships need to be nurtured. Don’t be endlessly side-tracked by the attractions of novelty – you will get the reputation of being a hopeless social butterfly, who has no integrity or staying power.

Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.”

•Don’t be quick to pick a fight, but once you’re in one, hold your own.

In Shakespeare’s day picking a fight could be fatal (see Romeo & Juliet). In an era when young men swaggered around the streets, pumped up with their own machismo and in possession of lethal swords and daggers, a minor brawl could soon turn murderous.

While this is no longer likely, conflict is part of everyday life, especially online, where violent arguments break out with depressing regularity. Before you enter the fray, whether it is a virtual spat or a volatile post-dinner argument, think carefully about your point of view and only enter arguments where you hold strongly held opinions; don’t merely jump into a dispute for the sake of it. Once you are involved in an argument, hold your ground and aim ­ – if no resolution can be reached – to disagree agreeably. That means listening carefully to the opposing point of view, conceding points that are indefensible, immediately acknowledging if you have made a mistake, and recognising that the other person’s view is valid. You will be seen as a force to be reckoned with and respected.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.”

•Listen to many people but talk to a few.

Listening is not about merely waiting to see your piece while someone else talks. There is a skill in listening that goes beyond the ability to remember every detail for future reference. Concentrate on what is being said and maintain eye contact; listening while glancing occasionally at your phone is obviously not good enough. Listening can often tell you far more than you merely hear – whether it’s the latest gossip at work, your child confiding something important to you, or your aged parent casually mentioning a trip to the doctor. Don’t block out these precious insights with your own heedless chatter… Finally, listen with discernment: it is always sensible to canvas other people’s opinions, but it is wise to reserve your own judgement until you have thought carefully about the matter in hand.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man…”

•Always wear the best clothes you can afford.

It is foolish to squander limited resources on fancy outfits, but it is imperative to try and look the best you can within the limits and constraints of your budget. Clothes say a great deal about the individual: not only do they reflect comparative wealth and good taste (or the lack of it). They are also an invaluable way of projecting an image to the world ­ – sleek professional, elegant man or woman of leisure, intriguing bohemian, perpetual student. Sometimes their very anonymity speaks volumes about lack of self-confidence or feelings of mediocrity. Never make the mistake of thinking that clothes don’t matter; that would be naïve. At the very least, the fact that you have evidently made an effort with your appearance is a universal sign of respect, and vital in any situation where you are being judged or assessed.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

•Lending can jeopardise friendships, while borrowing can create the delusion of wealth.

Lending often taints friendship and changes its parameters. If a friend asks you to lend them something, they are effectively asking you how much you like and trust them. You are then placed in a difficult position. You may secretly like them a little less for asking and may be forced to say no for practical reasons (if you can’t afford to lend them money for instance). Saying no for any other reason effectively means that you don’t trust them.

Ask yourself if agreeing to a loan is encouraging or enabling irresponsible behaviour. It is likely that the person you are dealing with is not a good money-manager, and lending them money forces you into a position where you are monitoring their expenditure, hyper-aware of extravagance, puzzled by sudden shortfalls. Do you want to have that role in their lives? Whenever possible, it is more liberating to give rather than lend, if possible as it is within your control to limit or expand the gift, squash the sense of obligation and move on.

Borrowing can seriously upset the balance of a relationship. If you must borrow money from someone you know, you can manage the situation by spelling out your eagerness to settle the debt, for example by setting up a standing order the very day of the loan. Bear in mind that if one friend is always “short of change” or seems to have permanently “forgotten my debit card” then they will gradually erode trust. The lender will begin to feel irritated, and their irritability will be considerably compounded by a feeling of pettiness (who quibbles over a cup of coffee or a bus fare?). But that is the trouble with borrowing and lending: its impact is cumulative and eventually, if the transaction is always one-sided, it can cause fractures in friendships because one friend is always the hapless giver and the other is a remorseless taker.

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.”

•Be true to yourself and you won’t be false to anybody else.

This precept about integrity and self-knowledge has gained fresh currency in an era when the virtual world gives us endless scope for self-invention, delusional claims and outrageous fabrications. Whether we are on an online dating site or ‘curating’ our own persona social media, it can be extremely tempting to tweak and enhance mundane reality. Ultimately, embroidering the truth will not survive the scrutiny of the real world and will simply engender a lack of trust and a tendency to feel suspicious amongst other people.


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