An Atherton’s Artificial Artifact!
This entry is a companion-piece to the last one, Guess I Shall Goe Feed Upon Worms
Alas, poor Hamlet! This enigmatic play is, perhaps, at the heart of Shakespeare’s mystique. It is, at least for many, the play that makes Shakespeare into something more than a talented Elizabethan playwright among other talented Elizabethan playwrights.
This fact makes Hamlet especially interesting to the scholarly Shakespearean monomaniac. Hamlet has become a sort of nexus of crazy scholarship and unlikely theories. Generally, one simply ignores all of this. However, this latest wave of madness (by which I mean the so-called Worm Codex, and the controversy surrounding it) is what I might describe, were I prone to slang, as The Frozen Limit.
For those readers who have been confined in lunatic asylums (or in some other place where newspapers are not permitted) for the past several months, I will briefly and shudderingly describe the circumstances of this latest pseudo-academic hallucination.
The Worm Codex was found under a floorboard in the home of the grandmother of Phineas T. Picklehater, a noted American Shakespearean lunatic.1 Mr. Picklehater’s grandmother lives within 50 miles of Stratford-upon-Avon, which seems to bathe her floorboards in a sort of Shakespearean sanctity; if you find something under a floorboard within this holy 50-mile radius, it pretty well has to be genuinely Shakespearean. Or so the Shakespearean lunatic seems to think.
“But what,” you ask, “is this Worm Codex?” You are an astute reader, and I commend you for enquiring about just what I was going on to discuss. The Worm Codex is essentially the Hamlet of the Second Quarto. However, at several points in the Codex, there is the note:
(sings Worm Song).
But what is the Worm Song? The last page of the Codex contains the key to this mystery, giving the lyrics of the “Worm Song” (see plate on facing page).
It is a curious fact that the “Worm Song” is very similar to a popular children’s song, “Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms,” a song especially popular in America — Mr. Picklehater’s country. I am not, of course, suggesting that Mr. Picklehater is the true author of the Codex. That, without proof, would lead only to a nasty lawsuit. I do note in passing that Mr. Picklehater is a man of great wealth with a great amount of time on his hands. I also note, also in passing, that he has often said that Hamlet is “a good play” but “lacks pep.”
I admit that the provenance of “Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms” is unknown. I even admit the possibility that some version of this song existed in Elizabethan England. What I do not admit is that Shakespeare would be so crass as to use this particular song – not once, but repeatedly- in what I consider his finest and most rarified play.
The first appearance of the Worm Song comes at the end of 1.5. Hamlet has just met his father’s ghost upon the battlements of Elsinore. He has come back to Horatio and Marcellus, and they have sworn a solemn oath. The proper thing would be for Hamlet to sum the thing up in a pithy couplet, and then for the scene to end without more ado. Here is the end of that momentous scene, as we find it in the Worm Codex:
The time is out of joint. Oh, cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
[They wait for him to leave first.]
Nay, come, let’s go together.
Exeunt all, singing Worm Song
The next reference to the Worm Song comes in 2.1, when Ophelia, reporting Hamlet’s apparent madness, tells Polonius: “He took me by the wrist, and sang me th’ worm-song” (2.1.984). Now, Hamlet has been putting an “antic disposition on,” so he might act in this way. If we swallow the Worm Song at all (which we Do Not), we might swallow it as it is used here — if we were drunk.
But the next appearance of the Worm Song is, I think, conclusive. It is in 3.1. It is, in fact, exactly where one expects to find “To be or not to be…,” the most famous soliloquy in drama. In the Worm Codex, when one looks for that matchless speech, one finds instead a simple stage instruction:
(Sings Worm Song).
Shakespeare would never mangle his play in this way.
After this, the Worm Song is everywhere. In the dumbshow, the player king is directed to “mime the Worm Song by falling to his knees, digging, and making pretense of eating the worms he finds in the ground, with much pathetic action and expressive wincing as from disgust” after he is poisoned. When King Claudius tries to pray, and finds he cannot, his touching speech is rife with reference to the song. The Ghost sings the Worm Song when he appears to Hamlet in Gertrude’s chamber. Mad Ophelia sings “snatches of The Worm Song” in her pathetic last appearance on the stage.
Finally, we reach the end of the play. The principal players lie dead upon the stage. Fortinbras has come on, made certain arrangements he deems fitting, and has gone off again. It is at this point that the author of the Worm Codex decides that a big musical number will just round the thing off nicely. A last stage instruction is given:
All rise from the ground with Slow and Strange movement; joining hands, they all sing the Worm Song as they process Off, their movement slow and solemn, as in a Dance of Death
The play is then – finally! – over. So, by a strange coincidence, is this Foreword. You will find in the following pages no Worm Songs- but you may, if you look carefully, find much else that will reward your attention.
1 The noted American lunatic here is Phineas T. Picklehater, not his grandmother. I have no information on Mr. Picklehater’s grandmother, save that, being British, she cannot be an American; on her sanity I have no information.