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 does this passage serve to develop theme?
- Give an explication of the lines, focusing on literary devices and ways in which the lines targeted the Elizabethan audience.
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.