'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (2022)

To thine own self be true’ is a line from act 1 scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. It is spoken by King Claudius’ chief minister, Polonius as part of a speech where he is giving his son, Laertes, his blessing and advice on how to behave whilst at university.

It is a speech that contains a number of different well known Shakespeare quotes, such as ‘Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,’ ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be,’ and ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’ fill the speech. Polonius’ advice is summed up with the lines: ‘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.’

Here is the full text of Polonius’ speech:

There, my blessing with thee.
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear ’t that th’ opposèd may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed 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.

The lessons in Polonius’ ‘To thine own self be true’ speech are generally thought of as good advice, which is why parts of it are so often quoted. After all, what could be more sound than advice which counsels one to be careful before speaking out? Or if you avoid lending or borrowing money you are more likely to keep your friends. And, of course, being true to oneself is a noble aspiration.

Aside from the content of the speech, what makes these words so interesting is the fact that they come from Polonius. In the first place, Polonius is a bore, and all of the wonderful advice is probably not even being heard by his children as they know how he goes on about everything. In the staging of Hamlet the other actors on stage with Polonius – his son, Laertes and daughter, Ophelia – often stand behind him and make mocking gestures as he speaks the words.

As well as being a bore, Polonius is an unpleasant piece of work. Immediately after making this speech, he sends someone to Paris to spy on Laertes as he enjoys his student life. Polonius also spies on his daughter, sets her up for entrapment, interferes with her romantic life, and ultimately contributes to her suicide.

Polonius meets a sticky end while spying on Hamlet in a confidential conversation with his mother. Hamlet hears someone hiding behind a curtain and stabs whoever it is. That turns out to be Polonius.

Coming from Polonius, this advice to be true to oneself is pompous, hypocritical, and empty. It is a tribute to Shakespeare that he can produce a speech that is quoted for four hundred years as definitive wisdom about human behaviour although it comes from a character who is a disreputable and hypocritical empty vessel.

The phrase has evolved, and in recent years ‘being true to yourself’ has become a common, fashionable term. It’s used to mean not worrying about pleasing other people, or living by someone else’s rules or standards, but rather living as your natural self, without compromise.

'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (1)

Ian Holm as Polonius, delivering his ‘to thine own self be true’ speech

Other money mentions in Shakespeare

Questions of money and its value appear frequently among Shakespeare’s characters:

In Henry IV Part 2 Falstaff asks to borrow money from the Lord Chief Justice:

“I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse: borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable”

The response from the judge is:

“Not a penny, not a penny: you are two impatient to bear crosses.”

Shakespeare understood how borrowing to pay one’s debts just sinks one deeper and deeper into debt and there’s no release once it begins to go that way. Falstaff and the judge both understand that too.

In Othello, Iago cons money out of the wealthy Roderigo. Roderigo has tried to court Desdemona and has been rebuffed by her father. She is in love with Othello and has married him and gone with him to Cyprus where the Venetian army is based. Iago tells Roderigo that their love can’t last and that he should go to Cyprus too. Roderigo does so and becomes frustrated by the lack of progress, considering that he is paying Iago for that service. Iago tells him to get more money because it’s going to work. He tells Roderigo.

“Put money in thy purse,”

He repeats it over and over again. It does not work out for Roderigo and it never could have. It was all a con.

In As You Like It the poor shepherd, Corin, says

“He that wants money, means, and content, is without three good friends.”

He is saying that money isn’t the most important thing in life: happiness and work are just as important. Shakespeare, himself, had all that.

14 replies

  1. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (2)

    Heidi says:

    March 16, 2020 at 2:18 am

    This is a great summation of the speech of Polonius. I am in an AA meeting and they are discussing the line “to thine own self be true”, and it is truly incredible how such a line is delivered by a mediocre like Polonius is a tribute to the timeless wit of Shakespeares tongue in cheek.

    Reply

  2. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (4)

    Stef says:

    July 2, 2020 at 2:33 am

    Polonius obviously had some serious character flaws.
    Who doesn’t?
    It’s still great advice.
    Look after yourself first, while being harmless and helpful to others.

    Reply

    • 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (5)

      Jemma says:

      August 5, 2020 at 8:16 pm

      Well said… There is no such thing as perfection.
      As much as one desires to be in the wisdom of their thoughts – we are imperfect human beings.

      Reply

  3. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (6)

    A.G. says:

    August 3, 2020 at 7:51 am

    You all are missing the point. “To thine own self be true…” is stating the fact that if one is going to perpetuate a lie…it starts with oneself. If one is going to “spin” a lie for whatever reason… better have a good story and back up and make sure you make it believable when you tell it. So to come off as “believable” one first must deceive oneself as to make it sound realistic. Now flip this narrative…if you just can’t lie to yourself, you won’t be able to pull off the above mentioned deception, because you won’t seem “believable”. Thus if you can’t lie to yourself first you can’t lie to any other “man”.

    Reply

    • 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (7)

      Tom Tester says:

      November 13, 2021 at 11:06 pm

      Wow, one of us has really missed the point. In a nutshell, considering Polonius’s actions, I take it to mean do as I say, not as I do!

      Reply

  4. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (8)

    Andrew Francis Hollar says:

    August 20, 2020 at 11:53 am

    We often have been told to consider the source, but remember to not judge others, you have no insight into what they are conscious of. Is it not better to consider the value of what you are being given. Does it mean something to you. Would you adopt it as your own if others practiced it towards you. In other words, treat others as you yourself would be treated. Rather than loan, give of your own free will and think not of that you will have it returned and you will remain free. Do it often and you may find yourself being used. Here you need to be discerning. In your heart you will know the truth that which is true for you. Others will reveal themselves if you pay attention. The other had suggested his friends be tested, just as the bible suggests that we test the spirit. Suggesting we find out others intents and motives then we may know them by their fruits. More can be said and shared, but I’m pressed for time at this moment… think about it and you’ll know intuitively..

    Reply

    • 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (9)

      el says:

      October 20, 2020 at 2:06 am

      Ya, if your source is a Cu-age plagiarism of older Babylonian myths, I’m definitely considering the source as utter bullshit.

      Reply

  5. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (11)

    H says:

    December 5, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    The quote is stating the ontological truth that we are; like it or not, realize it or not, ALWAYS stuck with being who we are in the moment. It can not ever be otherwise…
    Being true to ones self means KNOWING ones Self. In that state of Being there is no falsehood that is possible… as when you recognize and ARE your Self you are there, in truth, for all the world to see.

    Reply

    • 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (12)

      kevin william farrell says:

      February 9, 2022 at 12:14 am

      spot on

      Reply

  6. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (13)

    Bonita Hightower says:

    September 7, 2021 at 1:02 pm

    I totally agree with the last comment. I always thought the words “To Thy Own Self Be True” was Biblical base so I googled those words and found it not to be true( however, one can never lie to one self because their real self will eat at them day and night until they settle within them self and sometimes they settle by not making peace within and therefore they live a lie because they have chosen to NOT BE TRUE TO Themself.

    Reply

  7. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (14)

    sharron says:

    February 4, 2022 at 3:23 am

    for me it means don’t lie to yourself, look deep into yourself, know yourself ,be honest with yourself. And be honest with other people .being an addict I can go into denial tell myself i’m not an addict, lie to myself, and that can lead me to useing drugs.im often told by other people including sponsors i have had, and members of recovery groups i used to go to, that i was not an addict, and that the drug i used daily wasn’t a harmfull drug, some offered me this drug at times, including while i was detoxing, listening to them too much was keeping me in denial. that’s one, of the reasons why i have to keep away from those people. and that’s why i have to keep being honest with myself.
    reminding myself that i am an addict.

    Reply

  8. 'To Thine Own Self Be True', Meaning & History Of Phrase✔️ (15)

    Rick says:

    March 25, 2022 at 5:49 pm

    IMHO, those who are straight with themselves are generally straight shooters with others too. The motives for lying to ourselves and lying to others are exactly the same. When we lie to ourselves, we’re in denial about who we really are or what we’re really doing and that sort of thing. When we lie to others, it’s also a denial of the truth, only now it’s outward instead of inward. People who lie to themselves are practically incapable of being honest with others, while people who are true to themselves are practically incapable of lying to others. Let’s say I can’t face the fact that I’m a horrible worker, so in my own mind, I blame the fact that I’m unemployed on everyone and everything other than myself (it’s the economy, or it’s bad luck, or it’s this or that or whatever, anything but the truth). We can convince ourselves of this crap pretty easily, but deep down we know that other people won’t believe it, so we tell them that we’re a marine biologist or in between jobs or working on something big or whatever. Lies are lies; they all spring from the same place.

    Reply

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