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.
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet
What does it mean?
A call to be your true, “authentic” self?
A realization that who you really are and the roles you play are sometimes (often) at odds?
A reminder that you’re only whoever you are in that moment?
Or maybe something more bittersweet: that you, alone, are all you have?
One of the most wonderful things about words — or any form of art, really — is that we find in them what we want to see. (Perhaps that’s what ultimately separates art from science, my other favorite topic, where what we want to see has no bearing at all.)
In Hamlet, those lines are spoken by a rather farcical character (Polonius) as the denouement to a list of idioms and truisms serving as advice. You’ve heard plenty of the other lines before, I’m sure (“Neither a borrower nor lender be,” “Give every man thine ear, but few thine voice,” etc.), but “to thine own self be true” tends to be the phrase people remember. And reinterpret.
We can’t know, really, what Shakespeare intended for us to hear. None of us were alive at the time. None of us were in his head. Plenty of scholars have debated its meaning — and plenty of folks have adopted it as a mantra or justification of behaviors, both good and bad.
But here’s what I see when I read it:
This above all:
to thine own self be truthful.
In other words: To yourself, be honest.
It’s easy to deceive. We all know that. But what we don’t realize is that, often, the easiest person to deceive is ourselves.
It’s particularly easy when everyone around us, loaded with judgment, is happy to tell you their version of right and wrong — as if that’s ever anything but contextual. If we’re not clear on who we are and what we stand for, it’s easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that a path, set and directed by others, is the “right” one for us. That we can’t do it, or we’re not worth it, or we don’t deserve it. That our own needs and wants are “rightly” subsumed to those of others. Or, more selfishly, theirs are subsumed to ours.
But I don’t see life as either / or. To me, it’s “Yes, and….”
Which means that understanding context, and particularly where we stand in the midst of that context, is all-important when working to quiet our unquiet minds.
And that’s why that phrase speaks to me: The only context that never changes is us. The only constant, as inconstant and ever-changing as we are, is us.
We are the only throughline in our lives.
And if we’re not honest with ourselves — about who we are, what we want, and why — then we’re incapable of finding the balance between all of that and the world around us, and everyone else whose lives touch ours. We’re incapable of knowing what drives the next step, or what drove us where we are in the first place.
We’re incapable of being true to anything, least of all ourselves.
No honesty, no information. No information, no knowledge. No knowledge, no power.
But maybe you see something different.
Image credit: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The First Madness of Ophelia, 1868