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HAMLET: BOOKNOTES - ONLINE SHAKESPEARE STUDY GUIDE
ACT V, SCENE 1
Two gravediggers are in a cemetery, discussing the Christian burial accorded to Ophelia. Though her funeral is not allowed in the church, she has been given a plot in its graveyard. As they work, the gravediggers are clownish, telling one another riddles and making jokes. Hamlet and Horatio enter as one gravedigger begins to sing happily. Hamlet watches as the gravedigger picks up a skull from the grave and throws it on the ground. Hamlet's thoughts turn to the inevitability of death; he imagines the people whose bones now lie in the graveyard and wonders what kind of lives they led. When Hamlet talks to one of the gravediggers, he learns that some of the bones belong to Yorick, the old court jester. Hamlet reminisces about the fact that Yorick had often shown him affection, carrying him on his back; Though he once had the power to make everyone in the court happy, the old jester is now nothing but a pile of bones. Hamlet is impressed with the leveling force of death.
As the funeral procession approaches, Hamlet and Horatio retire some distance away from the grave in order to observe and not be seen. Hamlet is quick to notice that the burial is for somebody who has committed suicide, for there are no religious rites of a Christian funeral and no requiem is sung. Hamlet then spies Laertes, who commands the coffin to be lowered in the pit. He says that when the casket is covered with mud, violets are sure to grow from it. He also claims that his beloved sister will still be an angel of virtue when the priest himself lies howling for mercy. Next, the Queen bids Ophelia farewell, scattering flowers on her grave and remarking that she always wanted Ophelia and Hamlet to marry. Then, overcome with grief, Laertes jumps in the grave with his sister and calls out to the gravedigger to bury him as well. Hamlet is overcome with sorrow over Ophelia's death and joins Laertes in the grave. When the two men argue, they are restrained by Claudius and Gertrude. As Hamlet leaves, Claudius slyly indicates to Laertes that his opportunity for revenge is almost at hand.
The graveyard scene provides broad comic relief to an otherwise deadly serious and grim tragedy. The humor of the scene is not, however, superficial. While the gravediggers' punning earns hearty laughter, their dialogue has a deeper meaning and function. The black comedy of the gravediggers suddenly transfers the focus of attention from abstract matters such as love, honor, and revenge to the basic question of human survival.
The scene is divided into two parts. In the first part, Hamlet contemplates the mortality of man as he watches the human skulls being tossed from their sleepy graves by the gravediggers. The most important skeleton is tossed aside with as much respect as the bones of a nameless peasant, proving that death is a great leveler. The gravediggers are used to clearly foreshadow that more deaths will occur in this tragic play, and the audience is made to wonder for whom the next grave will be readied.
In the second part of the scene, Hamlet comes out of his pretended madness when he faces the reality of the death of Ophelia, the young woman he has always loved. It is heart-rending for him to observe Ophelia's burial and realize he has lost her forever. Preoccupied with his vengeance, he knows he has allowed her to slip from his grasp into the river. He now feels utterly alone, having lost his father, mother, and true love. When he can take the pain no longer, he jumps into Ophelia's grave beside Laertes. This totally human response from Hamlet demonstrates that no amount of philosophizing can reduce heartache and that no amount of vengeance can fill the void left by the death of a loved one
The gravediggers scene is a pause between the rapidly rising action of the last few tragic scenes and the upcoming final tragedy. It also allows the audience to again see Hamlet in his normal disposition. Possessing a fine sense of humor, he is capable of appreciating the wit of the gravediggers even in the midst of his troubles. Possessing a depth of sensitivity and emotion, Hamlet frees himself from pretense and openly expresses his grief by entering Ophelia's grave; he does not realize that he will soon be entering his own grave.