In Act Two, Scene Two of Hamlet, Polonius reads the note from the prince which he addresses “to the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia” (II.ii.109-110), and decries the phrase “beautified” as “an ill phrase, a vile phrase” (II.ii.111). The object of that descriptor, Ophelia, later asks of Gertrude, “Where is the beauteous Majesty of Denmark?” (IV.v.21).
Beautified. Beauteous. What’s the difference? And why does Polonius consider the former to be “vile”?
As always we can get some answers from our old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Let’s start at the root of both words: “Beauty.” In Shakespeare’s day, meanings included:
a. That quality of a person (esp. a woman) which is highly pleasing to the sight; perceived physical perfection; attractive harmony of features, figure, or complexion; exceptional grace, elegance, or charm in appearance.
b. That quality of a person or thing which is highly pleasing or satisfying to the mind; moral or intellectual excellence.
- beauty, n.; I.1.a and b
Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Oxford University Press,
Web. 4 April 2015.
And taking one degree of separation from “beauty” is “beautiful” which–not surprising–could mean
a. Highly pleasing to the sight; embodying an ideal of physical perfection; possessing exceptional harmony of form or color.
b. Of a person (now esp. a woman), the face, figure, etc.: possessing attractive harmony of features, figure, or complexion; exceptionally graceful, elegant, or charming in appearance.
2. Realizing an ideal of intellectual or moral excellence; pleasing to the mind, esp. in being appropriate or well-suited to a particular purpose; highly attractive or admirable in character.
4. In the names of plants and animals considered to be particularly pleasant or attractive in appearance.
- OED Online: beautiful, adj.; I.1.a and b, 2, and 4
So to be beautiful is to have beauty, which could be pleasing to the sight or pleasing to the mind and admirable.
When the distract Ophelia enters calling for the “beauteous” Majesty of Denmark, what exactly does that word mean?
1. Highly pleasing to the senses, esp. the sight; beautiful; (also, in recent use) sensuously alluring, voluptuous.
2. Highly attractive or admirable in character; spiritually, morally, or intellectually excellent. Cf. beautiful adj.
- OED Online: beauteous, adj. A.1 and 2
Well, that first one, with its sensuously alluring and voluptuous aspect raises all sorts of quasi-jealous (possibly even Oedipal) possibilities. And it stands slightly apart from a simple equivalency to “beautiful”… that visual “beauteous” is more akin to the #4 definition of “beautiful”: in the descriptor of plants (foreshadowing?) or animals (insulting?). It’s only in the spiritually/morally excellent definition that there is an equivalency to “beautiful.” This might even be a sarcastic or an ironic reading as well, since the royal couple moved so quickly to have her father buried.
Which brings us back to that father, Polonius, and his opinion of Hamlet’s diction in his missive to Ophelia. In Shakespeare’s day, “beautified” meant “Made beautiful or more beautiful; esp. improved in appearance” (OED Online: beautified, adj.).
If Polonius sees this as an insult to his daughter (she wasn’t beautiful before?), I could see his defenses go up and call the word “vile.” This may be what Hamlet means. However, there’s more at work here, I think. To “beautify” had a much more nuanced meaning:
a. To make (something or someone) beautiful or more beautiful; esp. to improve the appearance of (a person or place).
2. To become beautiful or more beautiful.
- OED Online: beautify, v.; 1.a and 2
There’s a difference between making something beautiful (or more beautiful), and that thing becoming beautiful (or more beautiful) on its own. If he truly loved her, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see a romantic prince addressing this letter to his love who grows more beautiful every day.
Are there definite answers here? No… but so much for the actors and directors to discuss!