Laertes:Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82
Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.
"To thine own self be true" is Polonius's last piece of advice to his son Laertes and since studying Hamlet in 6th Form under the tutelage of the delightful Miss Claire Smith (wonder what she is up to now!), they are words that have always stuck with me.
In the Elizabethan context, these words are possibly less about sticking to your beliefs and more about looking after yourself so that you can look after others. "To thine own self be true" is telling Laertes to be good, to neither borrow nor lend money and above all to take care of himself. Although this may seem selfish advice, it is indeed sage. If we do not look after ourselves, if we do not choose the path which while challenging us does not tip us over the edge, we will end up being no good to anyone. I have seen teaching colleagues end up like this. I have been there myself. Burning the candle at both ends and in the middle leads to fatigue, illness and the inability to function at our best. We think we can survive through the stresses and pressures of the week and then collapse on the weekend, but then we stress about not having energy for the family on Saturday and the dread of Sunday night trying to prepare for the onslaught of the next week. "To thine own self be true" should be tattooed on the arm of each exhausted educator so they can see it and perhaps stop for a moment of mindfulness, a moment of being human and end up being a better teacher because of it.
Perhaps there is a more modern interpretation of the words too. I believe that being true to your self and the beliefs you hold is also a key part of being human and is indeed what drives us to give our all as teachers. We believe that we are doing good for the young people in our care. We believe we are helping to build the citizens of the future. We believe we can take pride in the noble work we do. Aye, there's the rub. Being true unto ourselves creates an incredible tension between taking care of ourselves and giving our all in the name of our beliefs. We both want to protect ourselves and our families whilst giving our all to our job (what a pithy word), our career (worse) or what can best be described as our vocation. Once again, I am acknowledging this tension but have no definitive answer and maybe there is not one. But to quote another great man, my Principal His Eminence Peter Corkill (inside joke from assemblies...) "It is all about balance". Sage words indeed.
So in keeping with the theme of this post, perhaps the Bard himself describes darkly similar tensions through the words of Hamlet (who really should have listened to Peter and found a little balance);
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor's wrong, the proud man's Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.