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The best counsellors are the dead: counsel and Shakespeare’s Hamlet
journal contributionposted on 2023-06-12, 08:32 authored by Joanne Paul
This article demonstrates how Shakespeare used Hamlet to explore Renaissance ideas regarding political counsel, especially those epitomized in the maxim ‘optimi consiliarii mortui’ – the best counsellors are the dead. Examining Hamlet as a historical source, attention is drawn to the influence of Plutarch and Montaigne on the construction of conciliar characters, particularly Polonius, who is figured as the personification of late sixteenth-century debates over the nature of the counsellor. Polonius' humanist tendencies are shown to be ineffective and naive, and his Machiavellian plotting pernicious and destructive. In the end, as Hamlet declares, Polonius is a better counsellor when dead. Instead, a new conciliar model is propounded in Hamlet, in which the best counsellor is nothing more than the voice of the dead, lacking in both rhetorical ornamentation and scheming self-interest.
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