Polysemic Language, Democratization, and the Empowerment of the Body Politic in Shakespeare's Hamlet
In Act 4, Scene 3, Hamlet, by saturating his text with the potential for polysemy, evokes death in order to champion democratic ideals. Hamlet specifically achieves this end when he both comically and elusively responds to King Claudius’ inquiry regarding the whereabouts of chief counselor Polonius’ body. In particular, Hamlet retorts in an interlocutory fashion,
“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" (Shakespeare, 20-23).
In this passage, Hamlet’s polysemic language allows for the interpretation wherein being “eaten” signifies dying. Hamlet implies that, by fattening other animals in order to feed themselves, people, in so doing, inadvertently fatten themselves for their posthumous consumption by worms. Holistically, Hamlet insinuates that all humans eat and, one day, will be eaten after death. This quotation presupposes death, as the phrase, “we fat ourselves for maggots,” suggests that men ultimately die and maggots feed upon their decaying corpses. Therefore, Hamlet’s polysemic language implies an absence of being via consumption.
This notion of consumption in the form of death invokes Ranciere’s Emancipated Spectator, as the act of eating reflects spectatorship. According to Ranciere, once the actor performs the play, he becomes absent in the sense that he relinquishes control over the interpretation of his theatrical performance. The legal doctrine and performance alike are rendered “third things,” entities entirely susceptible to consumption and interpretation by the body politic and the spectator, respectively. Figuratively speaking, the spectator consumes the theatrical performance by digesting and breaking down the language of the play, thereby actively interpreting this “third thing” for himself.
This percept of consumption is evinced not only in the realm of theater but also in the realm of democratic politics. Essentially, the aforementioned absence of being is reflected in the role of kinship when the king dies or becomes “of nothing,” as previously stated by Hamlet. Ultimately, with regard to political sphere, consumption in the form death facilitates polysemy because once the king is dead, he has no control over interpretation over the legal doctrine by the body politic.
Similar to the situation regarding the king, when an author is not physically present to elucidate the meaning of his text to the reader, opportunities for interpretation, known as polysemy, arise. In effect, the capacity for a multivalence of meaning considerably increases. Every text an author writes serves as a memento mori to be interpreted by posterity. Even while an author is living, he is dead, or absent with respect to the text that he has produced. The author experiences a total loss of authority after putting his words onto paper, and this complete lack of power parallels both the king and the spectator’s absences of authority.
Through consumption of theatrical performance, the spectator assumes the role of active interpreter. Upon further excogitation of this active role, one can construe a veritable degree of agency associated with the spectator as he wrestles with this “third thing,” or the theatrical performance itself. The body politic in society possesses a similar sort of agency, in so doing, only further redounding to the notion that Hamlet’s ironic deployment of polysemic language represents democratic politics. In short, this newfound agency directly aligns with democratic political ideals, as democracy flourishes through the agency and power of the demos.
Hamlet’s polysemic language champions the notion of equality attained posthumously, implying a degree of democratization as men are “eaten.” Hamlet principally contends that death serves as a vehicle through which men can be integrated into the “demos,” or the people, as death is the ultimate equalizer and unifier of humanity. Quite literally, it is by death that men can become grounded in equality. Hamlet veritably insinuates that the act of being eaten by worms can be equated to democratic ideals devouring and, accordingly, obliterating the monarchical framework.
Hamlet’s aforementioned “convocation of politic worms” can be inferred as representing the demos, or body politic. The worms are described by Hamlet as consumptive machines, purportedly in order to evoke the image of the body politic consuming, digesting, and subsuming the laws, or this exterior “third thing,” into their realm of existence, such that they exist wholly separate from the king and entirely in the hands – or, quite literally, in the bellies – of the demos. This visual serves to buttress democratic political precepts and evoke notions of democratic empowerment. In essence, Hamlet’s polysemic language invokes democratic politics.
Furthermore, through Hamlet’s polysemic language, death’s ability to unite individuals into a cohesive amalgamative unit permits a politically democratic order to transpire – one that can evolve through the shared experience of death. Death appears to align itself directly with the laws that govern society and the knowledge that lies exterior to Ranciere’s schoolmaster and pupil, as each can be considered a “third thing” through which individuals can experience and interpret.
Consequently, Hamlet’s polysemic language seems to espouse democratic politics by firmly entrenching that, by grappling with death, or this “third thing,” individuals unite into a phalanx of sorts, uniformly equal in its composition. The ideals of democratized society are ever so bolstered by the interaction of individuals comprising the body politic with this “third thing.” In essence, citizens attain equality in relation to one another by interacting with this “third thing,” namely, death.
In addition to a sense of equality achieved through death, a sense of agency is achieved through the experience of death. In particular, these “politic worms,” or members of the body politic are imbued with agency upon dying, as they actively participate in effecting equality, a purely democratic ideal. This active role is particularly evidenced when Hamlet states, “We fat all creatures else to fat us” (Shakespeare, 22-23). This notion of “fattening” creatures or being “fattened” by others speaks to the idea of continual agency via consumption and decomposition through digestion – in essence, a sense of breakdown, otherwise known as death. In effect, just as the body politic exercises their agency through interpretation of the law, they may similarly adopt an active role in acquiescing to death and its attendant undertones that espouse equality. Thus, this agency and inextricable involvement in one’s death can be construed from Hamlet’s language, thereby serving to further strengthen democratic thought and evoke aspirations towards democratic politics.
Finally, the process of death, inferred through Hamlet’s polysemic language, ultimately thrusts agency upon the individual, in so doing, reflecting ideals of democratic politics. The equalizing capacity for experiencing this “third thing” called death serves as the sine qua non for democracy, and this capacity, by virtue of the agency it imparts to citizens, enables empowerment to occur. In effect, owing to this sense of agency afforded through the experience of death, the body politic appears to be inculcated with a surge of empowerment. Ultimately, by imbuing the body politic with blatant puissance, Hamlet’s polysemic rhetoric encourages enlargement of the role of the body politic in relation to the king within society.
Rancière, J. (2014). The Emancipated Spectator. Verso Books.
Shakespeare, W. (1904). The Tragedy of Hamlet. University Press.