Hamlet: 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:
The 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––a 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 make Wittenberg 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, it soon turned political, particularly in Elizabethan England where the establishment of a government based on Reformation policies was Burghley-Polonius’s lifelong goal. Does the author mean that as Burghley’s body is being gobbled by maggots, his offices and wealth are being gobbled by human maggots now that he’s gone? Does it mean the Reformation in its ideal form is dead, feasted upon by greedy self-servers? 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 often true with Shakespeare, the answer is “all of these”––and probably more.
Today, Authorship scholars are the “politic worms” who are “e’en at” Polonius-Burghley and all of Shakespeare’s characters and their originals among his friends, family members, and most notably, his enemies. We’re the ones dissecting both the historical records and the texts of the plays, baring the bones of the true story of the man who wrote the Shakespeare canon, and why he and his patrons and his fellow writers thought it so necessary to hide their identities.