Hamlet Grinning Death's-Head: Hamlet and the Vision of the Grotesque
by William Shakespeare

Hamlet book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Hamlet Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Grinning Death's-Head: Hamlet and the Vision of the Grotesque

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Yasuhiro Ogawa, Hokkaido University

In its perennial phase tragedy is a metaphysics of death, death seen preeminently as eternity, silence, that is to say, as mystery. The individual "pass[es] through nature to eternity" (1.2.73) and "the rest is silence" (5.2.358). These memorable phrases from Hamlet sound like a resigned acceptance of the common human condition of death, which makes us realize that the concern of tragedy is coming to terms with death—the final mystery. Yet the philosophical acquiescence will come only after Todesschmerz—if we may be permitted to appropriate the term coined by a famous thanatologist in analogy with Weltschmerz1—is experienced to the utmost in its most agonizing fear and trembling and is made, figuratively speaking, analgesic.

The way Hamlet dramatizes this Schmerz is impressive; "the subject of Hamlet is death"2 to the extent that this cannot be said of any other Shakespearean tragedy. But the peculiarity of this play in respect to this theme does not so much spring from the singleness of vision concerning it as from the curious fact that it is a rendering of a particular mode of thinking that is preoccupied with "being dead. "3 The thinking is pursued in terms of "the dread of something after death" (3.1.77), and this "something" involves not merely "the soul's destiny" but "the body's" as well.4 The solicitude for the body's destiny after its shuffling off of the mortal coil takes on an obsession with its imaginary transformation into something loathsome, reeking, and despicable.

Hamlet portrays the dead Polonius as suffering an ignominious fate. According to Hamlet's quaint, cynical imagination, Polonius is now "At supper. . . . /Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him" (4.3.17-21). The corpse of the late lord chamberlain has fallen a prey to wily fornicating worms. We may callously say that perhaps this is an instance of retributive justice meted out to a Machiavellian of Polonius's caliber. (May not this imagined scene remind us of the one in which Julius Caesar was assassinated by "a certain convocation of politic[al]" men led by Brutus? In Hamlet, which is the immediate successor to Julius Caesar—these two have always been companion plays—we learn on Polonius's own avowal that, as a university student, he used to play the role of Julius Caesar in dramatic performances mounted by the university [the University of Wittenberg, Hamlet's alma mater?], the Caesar who he expressly adds is to be killed by Brutus [3.2.98-104]. Julius-Polonius is being assaulted by a party of political man-worms.) The pitiable condition is, however, not solely Polonius's. Hamlet makes a generalization.

Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. (4.3.21-23)

We fatten ourselves by eating all other living things which we fatten for that purpose, but all this is finally for the ingestion of us as prey by maggots. As far as dietary business goes, "Your worm" is supposed to hold sovereign sway.

Nevertheless, pace Hamlet "your worm" cannot be said to be the absolute victor in this process. It will be eaten by a fish, of which Hamlet himself is by no means unaware. Hamlet accompanies the statement by a variation upon the theme.

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. (27-28)

Dull-witted King Claudius, to whom all these remarks of Hamlet are directed, is stupefied: "What dost thou mean by this?" (29) But is the meaning of this statement so difficult to grasp? It seems to us to be fairly obvious. Let us put aside for a moment "a king" and replace it with "a human being." Then a totally disquieting situation arises: man-eating maggots are eaten by fish, which will in turn be eaten by men. In Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights worms do eat dead human bodies. However, in Hamlet the eating does not stop there; it goes on endlessly, forming something like a...

(The entire section is 13,560 words.)