Hamlet: A Foreword



An Atherton’s Artificial Artifact! 

This entry is a companion-piece to the last one, Guess I Shall Goe Feed Upon Worms

Hamlet header 2016

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.

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  1. Your summary of the Worm Codex brings the mystery into sharper focus for me, one who is familiar with the world of the worm. I suspect, due to the rarely mentioned Bess Bacon (younger sister of Francis, who suffered an early death and dismemberment at the hands of an angry and terrified mob, only to return as one of the earliest recorded and confirmed Undead), that the Worm Codex was in fact written in a perfect storm of grief over his sister, quill envy specifically in comparison to the Bard, and professional jealousy in general, by none other than Francis Bacon. He probably hoped to secretly replace copies of the original script with copies of the Worm script in anticipation Hamel’s actors would embarrass themselves and the Great Shakespeare Himself in front of a packed Globe audience.

  2. Melanie Atherton Allen

    Ah, the Baconian Hypothesis! Yes, that is possible- though I rather incline to the notion that, if Phineas T. Picklehater is not the author of the Codex, then John Dryden is probably the culprit. He was known to “improve” some of Shakespeare’s works- and to have done it without much skill. Of course, both the Baconian and what one might call the Drydenian theory presuppose the existence of the Worm Song in Elizabethan England- or, in the case of Dryden, in Restoration England. Can you, sir, shed any light upon this tricky historical point? Being Undead, perhaps your memory might even stretch back into these More Robust Times?

  3. I am fascinated by your knowledge, both of you, eminent scholars. I didn’t even know of the existace of this work, poor me.

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