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William Shakespeare



The scene changes to the cemetery at Elsinore. The gravedigger and another man, presumably a church official of some kind, are debating whether Ophelia, whom they take to have committed suicide, is entitled to a Christian burial. The talkative gravedigger comically proves, in hashed legal language, that she does not "unless she drowned herself in her own defense." His crony reluctantly agrees that she would not be buried in holy ground if she were not a gentlewoman (that is, an aristocrat). The gravedigger duly finds it a shame that the aristocracy have more freedom to kill themselves than ordinary Christians. He then proves in what is obviously a comic "routine" that gravediggers are the oldest aristocracy. Gravediggers are also the best builders, he says, because the houses they make last till doomsday. He sends the other man out for a pot of liquor, and goes back to work, singing a comic song about youth and age.


This brief comic routine in prose gives you a hint of the tension that is going to surround Ophelia's funeral, and sets the scene for it. Shakespeare's comic characters are often ridiculed for their ignorance- the gravedigger's attempt to shape a legal argument seems to belong to this category- but as the scene continues you will see that the young prince-philosopher has something to learn from the old workman, and that he is learning it at the most opportune moment.

Hamlet, passing by with Horatio, is amused at the notion of a gravedigger singing while he works. In his digging the gravedigger tosses up a skull from an earlier burial, and Hamlet begins imagining satirically what kind of person it might have belonged to. But whether it belonged to a politician, a courtier, a lawyer, or a landowner, the person's acquisitions did him little good in the end.

"Whose grave's this?" Hamlet asks, and the gravedigger jokingly says, "Mine, sir," to which Hamlet punningly answers that it must indeed be his, because he is lying in it. Hamlet learns that the grave is being dug not for a man or a woman, but for "one that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she's dead." Hamlet is struck by the man's courtly gift for wordplay, and remarks to Horatio that for the last three years he has noticed peasants acting more and more like courtiers. But he finds out there are more serious reasons to link this peasant with the court: He became gravedigger here the same day King Hamlet defeated old Fortinbras- which was the same day young Hamlet was born. As Hamlet asks more questions about his own madness, the conversation degenerates into vaudeville punning ("How came he mad?" "With losing his wits." "Upon what ground?" "Why, here in Denmark.").

The gravedigger now brings up another skull, which he says has been there twenty-three years. It belonged to Yorick, the late king's court jester, who once poured a flask of wine on the gravedigger's head for a joke. Hamlet is deeply struck by this remembrance of a man who carried him piggy-back in his childhood. He picks up the skull and begins musing on man's mortality. Putting down the skull because of its stench of decay, he describes for Horatio how all the great leaders of the past must have turned to dirt in the grave; Alexander the Great might now be a stopper for a beer-barrel. Hamlet's morbid musings are cut short only by the sight of a funeral procession headed by Claudius.


You can now see that Shakespeare means the gravedigger to have a certain symbolic position in Hamlet's life. A full generation older, the gravedigger began his work the day Hamlet was born, which was also the day of the dead king's greatest victory. The gravedigger's cheerful acceptance both of his unpleasant occupation and of the nature of death and the inevitable changes time brings, stand in marked contrast to Hamlet's shock and bitter dismay.

What Hamlet has seen, though he does not realize it yet, is Ophelia's funeral procession, coming from the church to the grave that has just been dug for her. Because the circumstances of her death are suspiciously like suicide (Claudius has presumably kept her madness, like the death and burial of Polonius, a secret), she has been granted only the briefest of rites. Hamlet immediately notes that the procession must belong to a suicide. As he points out Laertes to Horatio, the boy begins quarreling aggressively with the priest over the shortness of the ceremony. The priest resentfully replies that if it were not for political interference, she should have been buried in unsanctified ground. Laertes angrily answers that his sister will be a ministering angel when the "churlish priest" is howling in hell, and Hamlet learns for the first time whose burial this is. The queen, scattering flowers over the casket, says, "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." If she is sincere, Laertes and Polonius were wrong to deny Ophelia this hope, and you can argue that they were indirectly responsible for Ophelia's madness. Or you may argue that Gertrude is merely mouthing platitudes at Ophelia's funeral.

Laertes, extravagantly cursing Hamlet- the one "whose wicked deed" made Ophelia lose her mind- begs them to hold off burying her for a moment and jumps into the open grave to hold his dead sister once more in his arms. In the grave he begs with even more extravagance that they bury him with her. The excessiveness of Laertes' reaction annoys Hamlet, and he reveals himself to the mourners, shouting, "This is I, Hamlet the Dane." Laertes lunges for him, cursing, "The devil take thy soul" and they struggle as the others try to separate them.

The queen finally convinces Laertes to stop fighting. Hamlet, unaware of the circumstances surrounding Ophelia's death, asks Laertes why he is treating him this way, since "I loved you ever." He doesn't wait for an answer, however, since "The cat will mew, and dog will have his day"- a proverb suggesting both that he cannot stop Laertes, and that Laertes will ultimately be unable to stop him. The king asks Horatio to take care of Hamlet, and leads Laertes away from the disrupted funeral. He begs Laertes to restrain himself till the dueling arrangements can be made.


Once again Hamlet's idealism and his unstable nature have lost him the advantage that his surprise return to Denmark might have brought. He has made an enemy of Laertes, who by rights should have been his ally, and he has reinforced with an embarrassing public incident the general belief that he is mad. Yet his behavior is not unjustified. Laertes' exaggerated behavior is an affront to Hamlet's rational nature and to his love for Ophelia. His shock at learning she has killed herself helps explain his impulsive and aggressive behavior. Also, having been away at sea, he does not realize the extent to which he has caused Ophelia's death, or how deeply Claudius has involved Laertes in the plot against him. Some have seen Hamlet's actions as overcompensation for his own awareness of his guilt in Ophelia's death, but there is no actual proof of this in the text: He is genuinely startled by Laertes' unfriendly response.  


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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