Why politic worm?

In Act IV Scene 3, when pressed by the King to tell where he’s left the body of Polonius, Hamlet responds with seemingly pointless wordplay:
hamlet-polonius5The King deplores Hamlet’s criminal lunacy, but is Hamlet really nuts?  Or is he only faking?  His responses may be inappropriate, but maybe they have a meaning that he’s hoping the audience  sees, even if the King can’t.  By worms he means the maggots who are “e’en at” Polonius, but why politic?  Why convocation?  

Most critics accept that Polonius was based on England’s Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley, who was known to boast that he was born in 1521, the year the convocation  of clerics and politicians known as the Diet of Worms collected in the little German town of the same name, where they proceeded to condemn Martin Luther for heresy, the moment in time often marked as the true beginning of the Reformation.

But why on earth does Shakespeare take the time to have his frantic hero make arcane jokes about the Reformation?  Why, as numerous scholars have shown, is the whole play steeped in Reformation language and concerns?  Why does Shakespeare choose for Hamlet’s university, Wittenberg, where Luther kick-started the Reformation when he nailed his 95 complaints to the door of the local church?  

Although the Reformation began as a religious movement, the establishment of an English government based on Reformation policies was Burghley-Polonius’s lifelong goal.  Does the author mean that as Burghley’s body is being dissected by maggots, his life is being dissected by historians and the politicans who will gobble up his wealth and his offices once he’s gone?  Or is the play on the word worms simply one of those “quibbles” (puns) for which, as Samuel Johnson noted, Shakespeare was always willing “to stoop from his elevation.” Surely, as is so oftten true with Shakespeare, the answer is “both.”

Today, Authorship scholars like us are the politic worms who are “e’en at” Polonius-Burghley and all of Shakespeare’s characters, plots, and sources, dissecting the records so we can lay bare the bones of truth about the man who really wrote the Shakespeare canon, and why he and his constitutents thought it so necessary to hide his identity.


4 thoughts on “Why politic worm?

  1. Hi Stephanie: Congrats on the blog. Looks nice. Interesting exchange about Polonius. If Burghley is being parodied as Polonius — as is widely accepted — does this exchange suggest that this particular part of Hamlet was written after Burghley’s death in 1598? I wonder if the Polonius character dies in earlier versions of Hamlet — from the so-called UrHamlet period in the 1580s? Guess we’ll never know. I’m just speculating that Burghley’s death might have been at least part of Oxford’s motivation for taking up the play again and revising and expanding it into the masterpiece we have today. Again, congrats! Matthew

  2. Thanks for the question, Matthew. There are many points in time when the characterization of Polonius could have been altered, whether by Oxford or by someone else after Oxford died. In my view, the most likely moment for the first version of Hamlet would have been 1583-84, following the death of the Earl of Sussex, when Oxford was still sore at Elizabeth for the way she’d been treating him, for her support of Knyvett while Knyvett was trying to kill him, and (my guess) her usual response to the death of one of her supporters, a few sniffles, then back to business. In 1583-84 Oxford would have been in grief over the death of Sussex and the troubles it meant for the Blackfriars theater, but by the spring of 1585 he was immersed in attempts to get a command in the Lowlands, and so would have been much more concerned to get along with Elizabeth (and Leicester aka King Claudius) than a few months earlier.

    Oxford would not have been concerned about Burghley seeing Hamlet because he would not have written plays like this for the Court. This was a play for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” which he would have produced at the first Blackfriars theater. I suspect that his use of this theater for entertaining the West End community was not well publicized, nor was anyone in that audience likely to report anything about what they saw in that theater to the Queen if they thought it might make her angry enough to close down the theaters.

    Although Polonius was called Corambis at one point, that his character was probably pretty much set from the beginning is suggested by the fact that his killing suggests that Oxford took advantage of the plot to explain himself, something he was inclined to do in the plays he wrote for this audience. By killing Polonius while he is spying on Hamlet, he may be explaining how and why he killed Burghley’s undercook when he was 17, if, as is altogether likely, it happened because Burghley had sent the poor fellow to spy on him. Oxford may not have intended to kill the man, but like Hamlet, who lashed out in a rage, he may have lashed out in a rage, less at the undercook than at the man who sent him to spy on him, with unfortunate (and lasting) results.

    I’ll have more to say about the writing of Hamlet at some point.

  3. Lovely to have your detailed thinking on the web, Stephanie. I look forward to more of your thoughts about Webster and any others who may have been fronts for vulnerable or illegal authors.

  4. I especially like your comments about Queen Elizabeth I and the unlikelihood that she had any offspring.

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