Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

To Thine Own Self Be True

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 1, 2010

As with yesterday’s phrase, “to thine own self be true” is oftentimes mistaken as a direct quote from the Bible.  It is actually taken from Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

 Yet here, Laertes! Aboard, aboard for shame!
 The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
 And you are stay’d for.
 There … my blessing with thee!
 And these few precepts in thy memory
 Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
 Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
 Be thou 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, unfledg’d comrade.  Beware
 Of entrance to a quarrel but, being in,
 Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
 Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
 Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
 Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
 But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
 For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
 And they in France of the best rank and station
 Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
 Neither a borrower, nor a lender be;
 For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
 And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
 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.
 Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!

Of course, it’s easy to see how this could happen as what Polonius tells his son is actually Shakespeare reworking the Ninth Commandment:  “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”  

In other words, one should not lie to himself or herself.  When one does not lie to himself or herself, it follows that he or she does not lie to others no matter what the situation.  The Ninth Commandment is phrased in an absolute manner that does not permit exceptions and so one can only be true to himself or herself in following the Commandments.

So while Shakespeare may have coined the phrase “to thine own self be true” the spirit of the phrase has a very long history that reaches back thousands of years into the Old Testament.

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