A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. (Act IV, iii, 27-28)How does this passage serve to develop character, plot and conflict?  How...

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat

of the fish that hath fed of that worm. (Act IV, iii, 27-28)

  1. How does this passage serve to develop character, plot and conflict? 
  2. How does this passage serve to develop theme? 
  3. Give an explication of the lines, focusing on literary devices and ways in which the lines targeted the Elizabethan audience. 
Expert Answers
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet's statement is part of the plot development in which Hamlet mistakenly killed Polonius. When Hamlet makes the statement above, Claudius, realizing that Polonius is missing, is in the process of discovering that Hamlet has killed his trusted advisor. This brings the conflict between Claudius and Hamlet to a crisis: after watching the play, Claudius realizes that Hamlet knows he killed his father, and Claudius also now realizes that Hamlet is capable of murder to avenge the death. Claudius recognizes that he was Hamlet's intended victim (not Polonius) and understands that he must act quickly and decisively to get rid of Hamlet, his enemy. Hamlet's killing of Polonius also adds a doubling effect to the revenge plot: now the hot-headed Laertes will attempt to kill Hamlet to avenge his own father's death. The statement also continues to characterize Hamlet as a person who is either mad, or feigning madness.

Character and theme align closely in this play, with Hamlet expressing and exploring many of the play's themes through his own introspection as he comes to grips with the fact that his uncle murdered his father. This particular statement continues to develop two themes: death versus life and appearance versus reality. Since his encounter with the ghost, Hamlet has been groping with the reality of untimely death, experiencing suicidal ideation, and struggling with whether or not he should kill Claudius. Hamlet's response to the death of Polonius begins a new phase; it also foreshadows his response to Ophelia's death, in which Hamlet begins to conceptualize death as the great leveler, a force treating kings and laborers the same way.

This relates to the theme of appearance versus reality that Hamlet has been exploring since the Ghost's revelation. If what the Ghost has told him is true—by now he has established that it is—the entire world is different from how Hamlet had understood it. People he trusted are evil; Denmark, especially the royal court, is riddled with corruption and deceit. However, death strips away the mask; death equalizes everything. Now dead, Polonius is no longer the powerful courier, advisor to the monarch. He is nothing more than food for the worms. 

The image of the dead as food for the worms was common in Shakespeare's day, a time when the average person was closer to the physical reality of death, and people were more likely to hear graphic reminders of death from the pulpit. The image of the dead Polonius as a feast for the worms would have been familiar and would have helped universalize the play's themes.

janetlong eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this scene, Polonius has been mistakenly killed and his body hidden by Hamlet. Claudius, Hamlet's intended victim, is attempting to do damage control by finding the body and getting Hamlet out of Denmark. Hamlet has been making things uncomfortable for Claudius, and the murder has made it convenient--even expedient--for Claudius to rid himself of Hamlet. Arresting or assassinating Hamlet would pose problems for Claudius' marriage and his political popularity. Claudius and Hamlet both know that Claudius must act. Hamlet's squirrelly replies to Claudius' questions are barbed with insults and salted with innuendo.

Hamlet's father is dead and now food for worms. Hamlet is suggesting to Claudius that a similar fate awaits him. Hamlet, who after all would have been king if Claudius has not swiped the throne out from under him, will also sooner or later, be dinner for the fisherman's bait (sooner, if he can't kill Claudius first). Hamlet, however, doesn't stop with the image of decomposition (remember, he has already visited the bones of Yorick); he underlines for Claudius the fruitlessness of his ambition by pointing out that he is ultimately no more than the digestive end product of a poor man's gut. Likewise, Hamlet must realize that the same must be said for both Hamlet and his father. Thus Hamlet is both threatening and contemptuous while sounding to all but Claudius  like a poor sad lunatic. The irony contained in Hamlet's statement is what separates Hamlet from the usual Elizabethan revenge tragedy.