The Worm Turns – Old Proverbs and Shakespeare

Elisabeth Tuck and I,  as well as several other Writers on the Journey members were at a workshop held by the Mount Diablo branch of the California Writer’s Club.  Someone used the phrase “the worm turns.”  Elisabeth grew curious about the saying and looked up the origin and meaning of this old proverb.  I am always amazed at the reach of Shakespeare’s words.

THE WORM TURNS – “Someone previously downtrodden gets his revenge; an unfavorable situation is reversed. The saying represents an evolution of the old proverb, ‘Tread on a worm and it will turn.’ The meaning was that even the most humble creature tries to counteract rough treatment. Shakespeare picked up the thought in Henry VI, Part 3, where Lord Clifford urges the king against ‘lenity and harmful pity, saying: Henry VI, Part 3, where Lord Clifford urges the king against ‘lenity and harmful pity, saying:

To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
The smallest worm will turn being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.”
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3 Responses to The Worm Turns – Old Proverbs and Shakespeare

  1. chs says:

    Interesting! I like the Shakespeare reference. Where did Elisabeth find the origin of the proverb? Source?

  2. stephen geller says:

    Henry the Sixth, Part one.

  3. karo8 says:

    I don’t agree with the definition given. It’s not about revenge, it’s about self-preservation. Clifford frames his argument in his opening lines: “My gracious liege, this too much lenity
    And harmful pity must be laid aside.”

    To be clear he is urging the King to identify York as a threat and respond to remove the threat.

    He then goes onto ask rhetorically when are animals gentle? Not against their enemies. His rhetoric augments the argument to respond to the threat that is York. He extends the metaphor to conjecture on the lowliest of creatures, slicing the drama into two, creating a tension that makes us want to shush Clifford swiftly for we are anxious and slightly fearful of the King’s response to such an insolent comparison with specific line: “The smallest worm will turn being trodden on”

    Which doesn’t mean turn around to attack! Good gracious what a ridiculous thought and how insulting to Shakespeare to infer such a nonsensical meaning. It is turning to avoid. That is, self-preservation. Of course in prose Shakespeare could have user “roll” instead of turn, but we would have missed out on a touch of alliteration and an ‘r’ transition from soft to trill with emphasis, making the speech lyrical in it’s delivery.

    And so in summary Clifford tells Henry that all animals will defend themselves and their kin, as should the king.

    It wouldn’t be the first time Shakespeare has been misunderstood.

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