Shakespeare, as always, reveals how masterfully he can use words in this passage from act 4, scene 3 of Hamlet. Hamlet has accidentally killed Polonius, but of course, he doesn't want to admit that, so he engages in wordplay instead. Hamlet, therefore, tells King Claudius that Polonius is...
Shakespeare, as always, reveals how masterfully he can use words in this passage from act 4, scene 3 of Hamlet. Hamlet has accidentally killed Polonius, but of course, he doesn't want to admit that, so he engages in wordplay instead. Hamlet, therefore, tells King Claudius that Polonius is at supper, only "not where he eats, but where he is eaten." The worms are eating the dead and hidden Polonius. Just like everyone else, he has fattened himself up for the enjoyment of the maggots.
Further, Hamlet continues, the fat king and the lean beggar both end up dishes for those worms and maggots. Here, Hamlet seems to be subtly insulting Claudius (who is a king but shouldn't be) but also making the point that death is the great equalizer. It seizes everyone no matter what his or her state in life, and no one can escape. A king will die just like a beggar.
Hamlet appears to be having fun here, so he continues. Now he centers around the word fish. A fish may eat a worm that has already eaten of a king, so a little bit of that king is now in the fish. And if a beggar eats that fish, then he has eaten part of a king. It's gross, but it's true. The fish becomes the meeting place of the king and the beggar. Again, there is no difference between these two in the end.
By this point, Claudius is getting rather tired of Hamlet's reflections, and he asks again where Polonius is. Hamlet says he is in Heaven (or perhaps in that other place) and that if no one finds him, they will at least smell him eventually as they go up the stairs.
Hamlet is toying with Claudius here. He is admitting that Polonius is indeed dead, but he does so in a roundabout way; he speaks in riddles to distance himself from the crime. He is also maintaining the facade of madness, his “antic disposition,” as the now dead Polonius once described it. When Hamlet says that Polonius is at supper, Claudius thinks he means that he is dining somewhere. But what Hamlet really means is that dinner is on Polonius—quite literally—and that his corpse is now being feasted upon by worms.
Hamlet continues with the revolting, graphic imagery of death by saying that a fat king and a skinny beggar are nothing more than two dishes at the same meal:
Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table (act 4, scene 3).
What Hamlet appears to be saying is that in the end, it does not really matter whether we are rich or poor. We all end up the same way. In death, there is no difference whatsoever between a king and a beggar. A man can catch a fish with a worm that has passed through the corpse of a king. In that way, a king can end up going through a beggar's digestive system:
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
Among other things, Hamlet's cruel little game of cat and mouse with Claudius represents a warning that his days are numbered. In reminding his wicked uncle of his own mortality, Hamlet is making an implicit threat on his life. Claudius may be king of Denmark for now, but if Hamlet gets his way, it will not be long before he too ends up passing through a beggar's bowels.
It should be noted that Claudius has only heard about the murder of Polonius from Gertrude. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only believe it because Claudius tells them what Gertrude told him. Only Hamlet, Gertrude, and the audience really know that Hamlet killed Polonius. Shakespeare probably had Hamlet drag the body off the stage in order to assure the audience that Polonius was really dead.
When Claudius asks, "Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?" he is being friendly and fatherly because he thinks he is dealing with a madman. When Hamlet says, "At supper," he shocks and frightens the King, who is a bundle of nerves anyway. Claudius rises to his feet. He immediately suspects that a coup is underway and that Polonius was in on it. Maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also involved. They are Hamlet's friends. Maybe Gertrude is involved. She loves Hamlet more than she loves Claudius, and he knows it. Claudius is unarmed, and Hamlet is still wearing his sword. Whether Hamlet is sane or insane doesn't matter at this moment. If he is sane, he could be leading a coup; if he is insane, then outside enemies could be using him as a figurehead.
Hamlet wants to frighten Claudius, to make him lose that hateful smile, that regal self-assurance, and that condescending attitude. But then when he has succeeded, he relieves the King's immediate anxieties by pretending to be mad and telling him that Polonius is not eating but being eaten. The whole speech about the worms is only intended to assure Claudius that Hamlet is insane. It also shows Hamlet's intelligence, creativity, wit, and the other qualities that make him such an interesting and sympathetic character. While the speech about the worms is zany, it is also a thinly veiled put-down of the king, telling him in allegorical fashion that he is just another human who will be food for worms sooner or later.
Claudius does not ask, "Where is the body?" He asks, "Where's Polonius?" He doesn't know whether his crazy stepson realizes he has killed the old man but only thinks they are playing a game of "Hide Fox and All After," a variation of "Hide and Seek." Polonius was actually hiding behind the tapestry, which may have given Hamlet the idea of pretending to be playing "Hide Fox and All After" in his imitation of a lunatic.