Consulting an extensive archive of early modern literature, Joy
of the Worm asserts that voluntary death in literature is not
always a matter of tragedy.
this study, Drew Daniel identifies a surprisingly common aesthetic
attitude that he calls “joy of the worm,” after Cleopatra’s
embrace of the deadly asp in Shakespeare’s play—a pattern where
voluntary death is imagined as an occasion for humor, mirth, ecstatic
pleasure, even joy and celebration.
draws both a historical and a conceptual distinction between
“self-killing” and “suicide.” Standard intellectual histories
of suicide in the early modern period have understandably emphasized
attitudes of abhorrence, scorn, and severity toward voluntary death.
Daniel reads an archive of literary scenes and passages, dating from
1534 to 1713, that complicate this picture. In their own distinct
responses to the surrounding attitude of censure, writers including
Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Addison imagine death not as sin or
sickness, but instead as a heroic gift, sexual release, elemental
return, amorous fusion, or political self-rescue. “Joy of the worm”
emerges here as an aesthetic mode that shades into schadenfreude,
sadistic cruelty, and deliberate “trolling,” but can also
underwrite powerful feelings of belonging, devotion, and love.