Act IV – Scenes.ii and iii
The main issue here is now the whereabouts of Polonius’
body. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to find Hamlet and, therefore, the body. Hamlet calls them mere sponges and parasites of the court. They are far beneath him, the sons of a King.
In front of the full court, Claudius feigns concern over his nephew because
he is so popular with the people. However, he must be punished for Polonius’ death, and sent into exile.
Guildenstern and the guards bring Hamlet in, and Claudius demands to know
where the body is. Hamlet again uses his skill in words to confuse the situation.
He tells a story concerning a worm, saying that worms eat all bodies in the ground, and just as a fisherman eats a fish that has eaten a worm that was in the grave of a king, every man can progress through the guts of a beggar. He tells Claudius that not even a messenger from heaven could tell him where the body of the old man is because Polonius is certainly in hell, but that in about a month’s time, the smell up the stairs into the lobby will reveal the whereabouts of the body. Attendants leave to retrieve Polonius’ body and Claudius tells Hamlet that a boat awaits to take him to England.
The King muses to himself that England will finish the Prince quickly, as
they owe him a favor.
Hamlet does not like his school chums Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern and this is made clear at this stage in the play. He also decries Claudius referring to him as a ‘thing’ and that the pair are kept by the King ‘as an ape doth nuts, and in the corner of his jaw,
first mouthed to be last swallowed’. They are only needed while Claudius needs to spy on Hamlet, and once this is done they will be discarded. They will be squeezed like any sponge and they will be left
dry. The pair does not understand this wit, showing their lack of intelligence.
The audience must wonder why Hamlet plays this cat and mouse game with
Claudius over the whereabouts of Polonius’ body. Why he still projects this image of madness is confusing, unless he has gone mad.
We now also see an unsavory aspect of his character, and this is a departure from the heroic figure of Hamlet that has been portrayed up until now.
He comes up with some gross images regarding worms and rotting bodies.
When the King first asks after Polonius’ whereabouts Hamlet responds that he is at his supper not supping, but being supped on by worms. He goes on to say that we all fat ourselves for maggots, and the service that is given to worms is variable, depending on whether you are a lean beggar or a fat king. Two different dishes at one table, but the end is the same. All this dialogue does have a moral, however, and the point is that a fisherman may fish with a worm that has feasted on the body of a king, which is then eaten by a fish, which the fisherman eats, therefore the fisherman has in fact eaten a king, and so the king passes through the stomach of a fisherman/beggar. Only the worm reigns supreme! Finally, the worm, the king and the beggar are all equal, and they are all dead, and Hamlet is in fact saying that the King is a worm.
Hamlet gives one passing insult to Claudius, saying ‘farewell mother’
because a man and wife are of one flesh, and therefore Claudius is indeed Hamlet’s mother. Claudius merely wishes to be rid of Hamlet and urges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to hurry him to England.
The audience is in no doubt now that Claudius is the total villain.