Shakespeare is known to use juxtaposition in his play and Hamlet is no exception. In Act 5 scene 1 of the play there is a quick and unusual turn of events. The beginning of this act start of with two gravediggers digging a grave for Ophelia while discussing the validity of her cause of death in a light-hearted manner. This scene takes place in the middle of a sequence of devastating and most intense moment of the play. Just a couple of pages before, Polonius was murdered by Hamlet in the bedroom of Claudius, and as a result, Claudius ordered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet with them to England. Ophelia goes mental and Laertes arrives shortly after. Soon it is known that Hamlet is returning back to Denmark from his short-lived travel to England from letters he sent to Horatio and the King. As the audience awaits to see the final ending of all these events, the two gravediggers come to the stage and partake in a frivolous argument. This comic relief is used to tone down the somber and serious tragic feeling, briefly before the upcoming intense final scenes in the play. The gravediggers and Hamlet’s conversation, though seemly playful and witty, has a tragic underlying factor that foreshadows the ending of the play.
The two gravediggers are speaking about the burial that an inquisition declared the body be ready for Christian burial. The first gravedigger contemplates the truth behind Ophelia’s passing, unable to determine whether Ophelia committed suicide, or whether she had been mistakenly drowned. He begins to argue that the dead woman is not deserving of such gluttony, since she drowned herself and is not capable of redemption, stating “If the man go to / this water and drown himself, it is (will he, nill he) / he goes; mark you that. But if the water come to him / and drown him, he drowns not himself.” (16-19) The second gravedigger starts to argue and justifies that she deserves a Christian burial purely on her status because “If this had no been / a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ / Christian burial.” (24-26). Their dialog soon shifts to a humorous tone that shows their lack of empathy for human life and death in general. The first gravedigger asks a question to the second gravedigger, stating, “What is he that builds stronger than / either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” the second gravedigger fails to answer, responding with one who builds gallows. (42-43) The first gravedigger is impressed with his wittiness but tells him he is incorrect, he says, “And when you are asked this question / next, say “A grave-maker.” The houses that he makes / last till doomsday.” proceeding to send the second gravedigger to buy some liquor. (59-62) As he leaves, the gravedigger begins to sing while digging. As Hamlet and Horatio come in, they confront the gravedigger. The gravedigger and Hamlet engage in a clever game of wits with a series of questions and answers but becomes utterly confused on the gravedigger’s merriment while digging a grave and tossing a skull aside. Hamlet, feeling rather offended by the treatment of this gravediggers towards the decaying corpse, he interrupt him by asking who the grave he is digging is for, he replies with “Mine, sir.” (121) Halmet, annoyed demand him to be serious. The gravedigger unknowingly begins to quarrel with the Prince of Denmark. These exchanges from both characters give the viewers a playful understanding what Shakespeare is truly trying to convey. The gravedigger’s dark comedy immediately shifts the focus of attention to the basic question of human life from subjective matters such as passion, loyalty and vengeance.
It is unveil the feelings of the gravedigger when it comes to death, that he simply has no regard for the bodies he makes graves for, even poking fun when Hamlet asks how long does it take for a body to rot. He states, ”Faith, if he be not rotten before he die /(as we have many pocky corses nowadays that will / scarce hold the laying in) he will last you some / eight year or nine year. A tanner will last you nine / year…Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his / trade that he will keep out water a great while, and / your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead / body.” while pointing at the skull. (169-173, 175-177) Hamlet picks up the skull only to find out it once belonged to Yorick, “a fellow of infinite jest” who would entertain Hamlet as a child. (191) While reminiscing, he realizes that death is inevitable, it does not discriminate any human. Earlier stated by the gravedigger, “ One that was a woman, sir, but, rest / her soul, she’s dead.” as he refers to the grave is he digging for Ophelia. (138-139) He specified that she is neither a man or woman, but dead, nothing. This shocks Hamlet on how a man can lack empathy and be nonchalance when it comes to dealing with dead bodies and death. Hamlet questions Horatio if Alexander the Great “looked o’ this fashion i’ th’ earth?” in which Horatio says he probably did. (204-205) Hamlet takes into consideration during his realization with this new perspective, the gravedigger reminds him of. Death is inevitable, it is not exactly the gloomy and obscure thing that he tries to justify in his ‘To be or not to be ….’ soliloquy. The amplifying effect of death and decay intrigues Hamlet that all great men and commoners all end up as dirt. Hamlet elaborates on the tragic fact that well-known people, such as Julius Caesar, will eventually become nothing more than the apotheosis of dust and dirt.
As the King, Queen, and Laertes arrive for the burial, Hamlet’s appearance is different from before as he expresses his inner state of mind. He observes the Queen putting flowers on the coffin stating, “I hope thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;” (255) Only now Hamlet realizes the grave was for Opheila and he protest against Laertes and questions his sadness, confessing his love for her and “Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum.” as he comes out of his “madness” when he faced with reality.(285-287) The woman he loved, is dead.
In the end, the scene intensifies the appearance of the contradictory tragedy, by the way Shakespeare uses humor to lighten the scene before it gets chaotic. It gives the viewer an opportunity to see Hamlet as a normal man expressing his raw emotions, but at the same time, it also creates an uncomfortable sensation as it making light of a serious situation. In this scene, not only does it give the comfort and a lesson Hamlet learns but also escalates the tragedy in the play. These two elements go hand and hand, though being opposite, it develops a break before the real tragedy comes.
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- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet (Folger Shakespeare Library). Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Washington Square Press, 1992.