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The Queen’s Worm

Does another of Shakespeare/Oxford’s word games clarify an enigmatic scene?

by Richard F. Whalen (1998)

This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Summer 1998).

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At the climax of Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra is about to kill herself, Shakespeare introduces a Clown. The clown, or fool, or jester in Shakespeare is most often the truth-teller, the character who can tell painful truths to the monarch with impunity. He also seems to be the voice of the dramatist commenting on the action. When he speaks the audience should pay particular attention to what he says. As far as can be determined, scholars have not given the clown’s scene in Antony and Cleopatra the attention it deserves. For Oxfordians the scene may appear to be loaded with special meaning. (Text of the scene)

The clown scene and Cleopatra’s death by snakebite also deserve attention because they do not occur in Plutarch’s Lives, which Shakespeare otherwise follows closely. Plutarch merely says that Cleopatra’s use of a poisonous asp brought to her in a basket was one of several different ways she was supposed to have killed herself. There is, of course, no clown in Plutarch. The scene with the clown and Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s invention. All the more reason to examine what they say to each other.

Throughout the scene the poisonous asp is referred to not as an asp, or a snake, or a serpent.

Shakespeare refers to it repeatedly as a “worm.” That is an unusual word for a serpent, but it is the first and now archaic meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary; it comes from the Old Saxon. The dictionary uses a line from the clown scene to illustrate that meaning. Shakespeare could have used any of the other synonyms in his vocabulary, including “serpent,- ‘-snake-’ or –viper”; but he used “worm.” (Incidentally, Shakespeare never used the word “asp,– but Thomas Nashe did, and in connection with Cleopatra. Alexander Pope put it into a stage direction in Antony and Cleopatra.)

More surprising is that the word “Worm” appears nine times in just thirty- six lines in the clown scene–far more than in any other play. It occurs only once or twice in about half of the other plays, sometimes to mean a serpent, usually to mean an earthworm or maggot, as in “the worm of conscience” (Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing). This unusual frequency in thirty-six lines in Antony and Cleopatra bears examination.

The significance may well lie in the fact that “worm” in French is “ver”–and, of course, the Earl of Oxford’s family name was de Vere. The plays are full of puns and wordplay, some of it multi-lingual. The English “worm” thus can be seen here as a pun on the French “ver,” standing for de Vere, the English dramatist with the French surname. Moreover, “Vere” was probably pronounced “vair” in English as well as in French, the same pronunciation as for the French word for worm.

With this in mind, analysis of the passage suggests some interesting interpretations that seem to have gone unnoticed. Any one of the interpretations taken by itself may not have the strength of validity. Taken together, however, they may be persuasive that Edward de Vere in the person of the clown is talking about himself, the worm, to Queen Elizabeth in the person of Cleopatra.

Cleopatra is the first to refer to the asp as a worm. She calls it “the pretty worm of Nilus that kills and pains not.” This might be taken as the queen’s recognition that de Vere’s plays kill false notions but without intending to cause pain to the holder of them, especially if she is the queen.

In his answer the clown mis-speaks (a natural blunder for a clown) and says the worm’s bite is “immortal;” people die of it. But the blunder can be seen as deliberate, one that conveys a truth. The worm’s bite–that is, de Vere’s play–will indeed make Cleopatra immortal. And, by extension, his plays will make Queen Elizabeth immortal. Many commentators over the years have taken Cleopatra to stand for Queen Elizabeth.

The clown then rambles on about an honest woman who lied and then died when the worm bit her. The meaning is obscure, but the clown concludes by saying “the worm’s an odd worm.” Just as de Vere was certainly a difficult, odd lord in Elizabeth’s court, not like any of the others. He was the odd de Vere, the odd worm. The queen tries to dismiss the clown, but he will not leave; so she tolerates him, as a monarch tolerates a court jester.

The clown wishes her “all joy of the worm.”– a strange benediction, unless de Vere is asking her to enjoy and appreciate him and his plays. Then he lectures her, just as the court jesters in Shakespeare, the “allowed fools,” are permitted to lecture the monarch. She must understand that “the worm will do his kind–that is, that de Vere will do his thing. He will write plays. He will critique court affairs.

Again, he lectures her: –”The worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people.” That is, de Vere’s plays are only for the wise who will understand them and their advice. “There is no goodness in the worm,” confesses de Vere’s drive to bring painful truths to the stage, truths that will not have goodness for anyone but the wise. The non-wise will find no goodness in the worm de Vere, only painful satire. The queen assures him that his advice will be heeded, and the clown, pleased, again drops into mock humility and says, in effect, that the worm–de Vere–is not worth the feeding. He is not worth being taken care of.

Suddenly Cleopatra asks, “Will it eat me?” A strange question. This might be seen as a sudden switch in meaning of “worm,” that is: Will the earthworms eat me when I’m dead? The clown gives her a strange reply that seems to reassure her: Of course not, he may be saying, “a woman is a dish for the gods” unless the devil gets hold of her. Perhaps this implies that de Vere recognizes the queen as a favorite of the gods, a queen who is unmarred by the devil and who will be immortal.

Leaving, the clown repeats, “I wish you joy of the worm.” Perhaps de Vere is saying again that his writings, with their criticism of the court and society, are not meant to bring sorrow and pain to the queen, but only entertainment and wisdom, that is, “Joy.” Just as Cleopatra in the play will find joy in her death by the bite of the worm.

Twenty lines later, Cleopatra clasps the asp to her breast. At this moment, the worm and the fool or court jester–that is, de Vere–all come together. She calls the worm her fool: “Come thou mortal wretch … poor venomous fool…”

Then, in a change of pace, Cleopatra finds peace. Her attendant is wild with grief, but Cleopatra in an astonishing metaphor says to her: “Peace, peace, dost thou not see my baby [the worm, the serpent, de Vere?] at my breast, that sucks the nurse asleep?” Usually the baby falls asleep at the breast. Here the nursing woman, Cleopatra, with the asp at her breast, falls into the everlasting sleep of death.

The guards and Caesar arrive, but the asp, the worm, the fool, de Vere–all one–have disappeared, leaving, however, a trail. Oxfordian scholars apparently have not remarked on the unusual clown scene–except for Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn Sr. in This Star of England (1,172). They warn that the scene is “not to be taken at face value.” They describe the clown as a truth-teller, and although they mention the significance of “worm,” they do not explain its significance. They simply call the passage “a lucid word to those of us who are ‘wise.’” They may well have read “worm” as “de Vere” in Antony and Cleopatra, but they do not say so.

Ruth Loyd Miller mentions the French word for worm in her edition of A Hundreth Sundry Flowers (92). She notes how Edward de Vere punned on his name in several languages, particularly an the Latin word for truth in his motto, “Vero Nihil Veritas.” She leads off a list of such puns with “ver” for worm, or for spring, but she doesn’t mention the clown scene in Antony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare scholars generally say little or nothing about the odd scene even though it comes at the climax of the play. It may contain too many puzzlements for them.

Read from an Oxfordian perspective, however, the scene’s strange emphasis on “worm” may make sense and give the climax an even more powerful emotional impact.

Through this scene between the clown and Cleopatra Edward de Vere may be telling his audience, and Queen Elizabeth, about himself as her playwright.

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The Worm’s Bite
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From Antony and Cleopatra (Riverside) (V,ii,241-79, 305-11)

Enter Guardsman and Clown [with a basket]

Guard: This is the man.
Cleopatra: Avoid, and leave him. (exit Guardsman)
Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there,
That kills and pains not?
Clown: Truly, I have him; but I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal; those that do die of it do seldom or never recover.
Cleopatra: Remember’st thou any that have died on’t?
Clown: Very many, men and women, too. I heard of one of them no longer than yesterday, a very honest woman–but something given to lie, as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty–how she died of the biting of it, what pain she felt. Truly, she makes a very good report of the worm; but he that will believe all that they say, shall never be saved by half that they do. But this is most falliable, the worm’s an odd worm
Cleopatra: Get thee hence, farewell.
Clown: I wish you all joy of the worm.
Cleopatra: Farewell.
Clown: You must think this, look you, that the worm will do his kind.
Cleopatra: Ay, ay, farewell.
Clown: Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people; for indeed, there is no goodness in the worm
Cleopatra: Take thou no care, it shall be heeded.
Clown: Very good. Give it nothing, I pray you, for it is not worth the feeding.
Cleopatra: Will it eat me?
Clown: You must not think I am so simple but I know the devil himself will not eat a woman. I know that a woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her not. But truly, these same whoreson devils do the gods great harm in their women; for in every ten that they make, the devils mar five.
Cleopatra: Well, get thee gone, farewell.
Clown: Yes, forsooth; I wish you joy o’ th’ worm
[exits]…

Cleopatra: [to an asp, which she applies to her breast]
…Come, thou mortal wretch…
Poor venomous fool,
Be angry and dispatch…
…Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?

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