Times being what they are, when intellectuals are despised and when expertise is derided as elitist, William Shakespeare would probably have not got a hearing. How would a playwright be regarded other than as a bleeding-heart liberal? Who, in a world of brash egotism, would pay heed to a fictional tale of a medieval court in a remote country? Hamlet may be ignored, dismissed, but there are lines that create a proper perspective on the news of the past week.
Hamlet’s father, who had been king of Denmark, had been secretly killed by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who had taken the throne for himself. Polonius is Lord Chamberlain at the court and has been killed as a spy and conspirator by Hamlet. King Claudius comes in search of Polonius The conversation that ensues is a reflection on the nature of power:
Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
At supper! where?
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.
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
What dost you mean by this?
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
It was the Right-wing populist politician Enoch Powell, who once declared that, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” It is the nature of human affairs that human beings are mortal; it is the nature of human affairs that Shakespeare’s words spoken by Hamlet reflect a reality uncomfortable to those who would have a high opinion of themselves; that ultimately we become food for worms.
Hamlet’s words are reassurance after Sean O’Rourke’s RTE interview with Ian Roberston, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College in Dublin. Discussing President-elect Donald Trump, Sean O’Rourke asked, “Is there anybody with a bigger ego on the planet?”
Professor Robertson responded, “I don’t think so. Particularly now, being the President-elect, the most powerful position in the world, his ego will swell commensurately.”
However big his ego, as with all of us, the maggots and worms await.