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John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford). Words on the Move (2016). p. 86. Emboldening mine.

  Commonly we are told that Shakespeare's language is "high," such that the challenge can be met by making a certain effort. Related to this is the idea that Shakespeare's language is poetic, requiring more effort to process than the phraseology of Neil Simon. Then someone will say that the language comes across best with careful acting technique, ideally wielded by British people.
  All claims except the one about Brits are true. However, many will be nagged by a feeling that there is more to the story, and there is. When, in Hamlet, Polonius opens his farewell speech to Laertes ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be") with "And these few precepts in thy memory / See thou character," rising to a challenge can take us only so far. We can indeed process precepts, thy, and thou with the aforesaid rising. But what does Polonius mean by character? Neither intonation, facial expression, being British, nor rising will get across that in Shakespeare's time that word meant "write," as in the characters that one writes. Polonius is telling Laertes, in short, "Note these things well."

Please compare the two emboldened imperatives. I can understand how ‘character’ signified writing. But how did ‘see’ semantically shift to signify ‘note/record’? I.e., even after this explanation, this meaning of 'see' still feels bizarre. Can someone please make it more natural?

I tried http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_44.html.

  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this seems to be a language history question better suited to English Language & Usage, rather than a literature history question for us. – muru Jul 25 '18 at 22:27
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    @muru: I disagree. The question is partly about how to interpret the line in the play. – Tommy Herbert Jul 26 '18 at 8:22
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    The question currently has two close votes. I strongly recommend rewording it, so the emphasis is on the meaning of Polonius's word, rather than the (real or presumed) historical shift in meaning. – user800 Jul 27 '18 at 10:19
6

The question assumes that "see" is the only verb in the sentence and that "character" is a noun. This results in the following analysis:

  • "these few precepts": direct object,
  • "in thy memory": locative adjunct,
  • "see": predicate (main verb?),
  • "thou": subject,
  • "character": another direct object? An object complement?

This analysis assumes that "see" (or "look", in some editions) can take an object and object complement, and I don't think this is the case. (See the entries in C. T. Onions's A Shakespeare Glossary.)

The correct analysis is:

  • "these few precepts": direct object,
  • "in thy memory": locative adjunct,
  • "see": auxiliary verb,
  • "thou": subject,
  • "character": main verb; meaning: engrave, inscribe (figuratively).

The resulting meaning is: See to it that you inscribe these precepts in(to) your memory.

"Character" is also used as a verb in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2.7.4:

I do conjure thee,
Who art the table wherein all my thoughts
Are visibly character'd and engraved,

It also occurs in 2 Henry VI, 3.1.302:

Show me one scar character'd on thy skin:

Some editions of Hamlet use "Look" instead of "See". "See" is the version from the First Folio (1616); the second quarto or Q2 has "Looke" (which is then modernised to "Look").

Some editions point out that "character" is here accented on the second syllable. (They add that this is also the case in line 2 of Sonnet 122, but John Kerrigan's edition of the sonnets says nothing about the scansion of that line.)

Works consulted:

  • Onions, Charles Talbut; Eagleson, Robert D.: A Shakespeare Glossary. [1986] Enlarged and Revised Throughout by Robert D. Eagleson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993 [1988].
  • Hamlet. Edited by T. J. B. Spencer. Introduced by Anne Barton. The New Penguin Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1980.
  • Hamlet. Edited by Bernard Lott. New Swan Shakespeare: Advanced Series. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1990 [1968].
  • Hamlet. Edited by G. R. Hibbard. The Oxford Shakespeare. [1987] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Hamlet. Edited by Cyrus Hoy. Norton Critical Editions. [W. W. Norton & Company, 1963] Second Edition. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.
  • Hamlet. Edited by Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. [Methuen, 1982] London: Routledge, 1993.
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    I don't see how the word "character'd" in sonnet 122 is stressed on the second syllable – b a Jul 29 '18 at 14:47
  • @ba I'm not sure about the scansion of that line either and I moved that statement to a parenthesis. The correctness of the answer does not depend on this, though. – user800 Aug 4 '18 at 16:35
  • @b a: Looking through Shakespeare, he certainly pronounced the noun character with stress on the first syllable. For the verb, it looks like he could pronounce it with stress either on the first or second syllable; there are three instances where the scansion is better if it's stressed on the first, and five on the second. But in Sonnet 108, he rhymes character with register, which fails utterly if you pronounce it with stress on the second syllable. – Peter Shor Jan 27 at 11:03
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Your premise is wrong here: see doesn't mean note in this passage; see means make sure, and thou character means you write it down.

So

in thy memory see thou character

means

make sure that you make a record of this in your memory,

which means more or less the same thing as

note these things well.

See still can mean make sure: from Oxford Dictionaries Online:

See: 6 [no object] Ensure.
           [with clause] ‘see that no harm comes to him’

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