OED Post: “Worm”

Definitions of Worm:
1. Any animal that creeps or crawls; a reptile; an insect. Obs. In Middle English often wild worm. Cf. blind-worm n., slow-worm n.(a lizard); also galleyworm, glow-worm
2. The larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like. Also collect. the worm, as a destructive pest.

1. Act 1 Scene 5 Lines 81-98
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off, even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But, howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near
And ’gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.

2. Act 4 Scene 3 Lines 22-32
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A
certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at
him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We
fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves
for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is
but variable service—two dishes but to one table.
That’s the end.
lines from the Second Quarto not found in the Folio
Alas, alas!
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat
of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that

Most definitions of the word worm say they they are insects, but there was one that stood out because of its description, which is a “destructive pest.” The first time ‘worm’ is used is in the first act when the Ghost speaks with his son Hamlet and calls his brother Claudius a worm/insect for what he did to obtain the crown. Later, Hamlet uses the word in describing Polonious to get under Claudius’ skin. However, Hamlet does out call Claudius this but his right hand man, Polonious. Hamlet describes Polonious as a worm to illustrate a food chain in which the king, Claudius basically ends up as a lowly figure and is basically called excrement. Hamlet imitates his father in using the word worm. However, Hamlet does not alter the meaning but uses the power of the word in another way in still denouncing the actions of Claudius.

About Catherine Fong

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3 Responses to OED Post: “Worm”

  1. Hi Catherine!

    I also think the definition of worm as a “destructive pest” stands out and fits in perfectly with the passages you mentioned. Claudius is definitely a destructive pest-ending the Kings life, taking his wife and etc. Its interesting to see your analysis of the word for I payed it no mind when I was reading the text, but now after understanding its meaning I truly feel it enhances the text.

  2. Hey Catherine,

    I like how you wrote that the use of this word illustrates a “food chain:” and the how the maggot is the end of this food chain, which I find strange. I also think it’s very interesting and important that you brought up how Hamlet sort of imitates his father when he uses the word “worm,” which is a good example of how Shakespeare draws similarities between Hamlet and the Ghost. The “two dishes but to one table” quote is another appearance of comparison in this passage, and though it’s not directly about Hamlet and the Ghost, I think it provides a good padding to the framework to keep the idea of comparison and similarities alive in the reader’s mind.

  3. Laura Kolb says:

    Worms are really important to Hamlet–in the sense you describe here–especially in Acts 4 & 5. Next week’s class will be very wormy.

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