The Truth of "To Thine Own Self Be True"

“To thine own self be true” is a modern rallying cry for authenticity and self-expression.

After “To be or not to be…” (also from Hamlet), it is perhaps the second most frequently quoted line from Shakespeare.

"To thine own self be true" has empowered millions to be themselves, to chart their own course through life, regardless of what others might think.

Through this most famous snippet of iambic pentameter, we are given permission to be unique individuals, to be ourselves without apology.

Except that’s not really what Shakespeare meant.

In Hamlet, “To thine own self be true” is spoken by Polonius, chief advisor to King Claudius (a.k.a., the bad guy).

Polonius is giving some fatherly advice to his son, Laertes, about how to behave himself as he returns to France from Denmark. Also present for this little family talk is Ophelia, Laertes’ sister, and Hamlet’s love interest.

Spoiler alert: they all die.

(Polonius, accidental stabbing; Claudius, poisoned sword; Laertes, stabbed during duel; Ophelia, suspicious drowning; Hamlet, same poisoned sword, plus regular poisoning for good measure)

What Polonius Really Said

In this famous monologue, Polonius spouts off a laundry list of admonishments for Laertes, the last of which is the thing about being true to oneself. The Amazon tchotchke version unfortunately leaves some really important bits behind. The complete quote is:

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.

This Above All

Polonius begins with “This above all…” Of all the guidance, “To thine own self be true” is the most important.

The hundreds of tchotchkes available on bearing this quote sometimes include that part. But they never include the last two lines—and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

Polonius is not encouraging his son to embrace his individualism. He is telling him to live in integrity with his own values, because only then can he be sure, as certainly as night follows the day, that he can live in integrity with others.

“To thine own self be true” is not about knowing what you want for yourself. It’s about not being a hypocrite.

Context Is Everything

We know what Polonius really meant partly from the words themselves, which Polonius utters with touching sincerity. When we consider the full line in context, the intent becomes clear: be true to yourself, in order to avoid being false to other people.

But we know Shakespeare’s meaning mostly through his use of irony, because Polonius, while sincere in his advice to Laertes, was anything but true.

Polonius was a conniving, backstabbing, hypocrite. He was false to everyone, and there were consequences to his self-delusion.

To drive that point home (pun intended), Shakespeare killed him off by having Hamlet unintentionally stab him through a drape, behind which Polonius was hiding to eavesdrop. This act of treachery triggered the whole series of events leading to the tragic demise of, well, pretty much everyone.

In Shakespeare and in life, context is everything. Without it, we conclude that the Bard was giving us permission to go out and unapologetically get what we want. But with context, the real meaning emerges:

To thine own self be true is about knowing yourself, avoiding self-deception, and living in integrity with your values, because if you are not true to yourself, you cannot be true to anyone.

Work Doesn’t Have To Be a Tragedy

This is why we help people be truer to themselves, whether by discovering their traits and tendencies through a DiSC® assessment, learning their emotional intelligence strengths and weaknesses with the EQ-i 2.0®, or exploring these things and more through executive coaching

All of this matters not just because it will make your life better, but because deepening your self-understanding helps ensure thou canst not then be false to anyone.

Until next time,


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