To thine own self be true

Literary Tattoos: Shakespeare Hamlet

This is Amy’s.

I wanted this quote for two reasons. The first reason is what the quote says. My goal is to always stay true to myself. The second reason is that I have my B.A. in English, and I adore Shakespeare. So, it was, what I thought, an appropriate homage to him.

Literary Tattoos: Shakespeare Hamlet

This is Jennifer Berry’s.

Literary Tattoos: Shakespeare Hamlet

This one belongs to Meris:

My mom was a theater major in college, and when she was still in school she studied all of Shakespeare’s plays.  She said that the line “This above all: to thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” from Hamlet really shaped her and helped guide her life.  It’s a line that she used to teach me throughout my childhood.  This spring, after an event turned my world upside down, making me unsure of who I could trust, I decided to get this tattooed on my back in my mother’s handwriting.  My mom’s name means “honey bee” in Greek, so I decided to get a little bee along with it.

Literary Tattoos: Shakespeare Hamlet

This one belongs to Lauren.

Literary Tattoos: Shakespeare Hamlet

This is Hope’s.

I got this tattoo when I was in college. I know I love Shakespeare so much because of my father, who is a huge Shakespeare buff and was taking his children to the theater when other dads were going to baseball games. This is Shakespeare’s best piece of fatherly advice, so I consider it a tribute to my father and the bard.
Plus, they talk about this quote in Clueless, so even those deprived people who haven’t read Hamlet understand it.

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.

Hamlet, Act I, sc. iii


  1. says

    But . . . it was said by Polonius, one of the least impressive characters in all of Shakespeare. He, immediately after giving his son this advice, sends a spy to follow him and spread malicious rumors (i.e., lies) about him in an attempt to find out if his son is actually doing something wrong. Polonius himself spends a great deal of time being false to lots of men, lying and playing the politics of the court, and gets himself killed for it. The quotation, by the action of the play, becomes indelibly ironic.

    I don’t know how anyone could have read the play, understood it, and still get this tattooed.

  2. Poster says

    While I agree that Polonius is a bumbling fool, I disagree with the assertion that this quotation becomes ironic. If anything, everyone’s downfall in the play results from falling prey to their own desires and flaws. Sending spies to follow his son is being true to himself, even if “himself” isn’t admirable. Shakespeare’s tragedies teach us that people will continue to be true to themselves even when it becomes clear that being yourself is going to end badly. Rather than contradicting the statement, the play reaffirms it.

  3. says

    Poster – I disagree. It’s Ironic even just within the context of the speech itself. Polonius has just spent x amount of time lecturing his son on exactly how to act and how not to act (a set of rules imposed externally), and then contradicts all of them with ‘to thine own self be true’. Certainly I’ve always read that speech as the kind of vacuous, platitudinous nonsense that fills self-help books now as it filled commonplace-books at the turn of the seventeenth century.

    As to your last comment, I don’t think they necessarily teach that kind of hard determinism. Determinism is a part of tragedy, sure, but there’s no reason to see that it extrapolates out to a teaching on life, especially since Shakespeare also wrote comedies, and the last plays can been seen as a deliberate attempt to move beyond the ‘people continuing to be true to themselves’ model of tragedy. Prospero, in the Tempest, is convinced to change by Ariel, against the grain of his character up to that point – seems like Shakespeare wasn’t satisfied with the narrow expression of human motivation found in tragedy. Not to mention that Hamlet spends the whole of ‘Hamlet’ conflicted as to the nature of his ‘self’, and he dies because he *can’t* be true to himself (or even be sure he has a self to be true to), not because he is.

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