The Shakespearian novel, Hamlet isconsidered a tragedy and respects this throughout all the acts. The acts areweaved with betrayal, uncertainty and surprises. Such characteristics aremomentarily put aside as the fifth act debuts. Act V scene i is commonlyreferred to as the grave digger scene.
This section of the play has multiplefunctions. It serves as a comical relief in such a dark play, it also sets thetone for the final scenes and serves as a relationship between life and death. Thewell-known grave digger scene takes place in a very suspenseful part of theplay. The scenes prior are tragic and intense.
Hamlet puts an end to Polonius’slife unknowingly and runs off to England with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Opheliabecomes untameable and suicidal and finally Horatio receives a letter fromHamlet which says that he is coming back. Such wild events put the readers onedge and keep them hungry for more.
As they wait for Hamlet to arrive on stage,the two gravediggers are brought forth and engage in a playful discussionregarding the technicalities of the situation. They question if the deceased isworthy of a Christian burial considering the way her life ended, since suicideis typically frowned upon by the church. The two men further jest about howOphelia’s life ended; such humor is well characterized by the Gravediggerhimself in the following lines:Give meleave. Here lies the water. Good. Here stands the man. Good. If the man go tothis 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. Argal, hethat is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life. (Shakespeare, V,i, 15-21)Thetwo men, clearly question the method Ophelia choose to end her life and whetherthe law supports the coroner’s decision for a Christian burial.
As theycontinue to unearth Ophelia’s resting place they find the time to tell a joke “Whatis he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or thecarpenter?”(Shakespeare, V, i, 42-43) and The Other answers with “Thegallows-maker, for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.” (Shakespeare, V, i,44-45). Which is ironic as they are currently unearthing old remains to makeroom for new ones. The two men dilute the theme of death and tragedy in thisact. This form of comical relief is a common attribute in Elizabethan dramasand eventually made an appearance in many of Shakespeare’s works.
The firstdebut of comic relief in Shakespearian writing was in King Lear which was putinto effect with the Fool, it was later used in Macbeth with the Porter and finallyin Hamlet with the Gravedigger. In conclusion, Shakespeare uses comical reliefto deescalate the situation and temporarily halt the drama to make the climaxpiercing. Shakespeare is known for tragicnovels and twisted conclusions; Hamlet is no exception to this. The final actis full of unexpected events and scenarios, which are introduced to act 5 bythe gravedigger scene. This scene’s purpose is to be the lull before the mainevent.
This serves as a sort of set up to the heart pumping climax of the story.The events that take place before and after the grave digger scene arethrilling so this scene acts as an intermission in the drama and the two gravedigger relieve some of the tension with jokes all while keeping the theme ofdeath present. Once the men see Hamlet and Horatio they quit joking around andresume their digging while unearthing bone after bone of previous residents ofsuch resting place. Hamlet questions the Gravedigger as he is quite fond ofphysical decomposition of the human body. As Hamlet spoke with Horatio hementions the dead being “…chapless and knocked about the mazard with a sexton’sspade…” (Shakespeare, V, i, 90-91) which shows the insensitivity towards thephysical remains of men and woman. He goes on to say “Did these bones cost nomore the breeding but to play at loggets with them?.
..” (Shakespeare, V, i, 94-95)meaning the bones of the dead are only good for bowling and serve no emotionalor spiritual value.
Hamlet is finally realizing that after one is dead, theyare no one; they are simply a pile of bones. He was intrigued by the equalizingeffects of death. Death is certain, weather royalty or peasant, death is inevitableand everyone will perish. This realization is essential for the continuation ofthe act and to set the tone for the final scenes of the play.
The theme of death is presentthroughout the play and is prominent during the last act. The grave diggerscene represents this theme as it bridges the gap between life and death. TheGravedigger is approached by Prince Hamlet and his friend Horatio, they startconversing and he throws a skull to Hamlet and says “…This same skull, sir,was, sir, Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester” (Shakespeare, V, i, 186-187).Hamlet does not believe the man at first, takes the skull and explains that hewas friends with Yorick “Allas, poor Yorick! I knew him…” (Shakespeare, V, i,190-191) the prince later questions how this is Yorick’s skull “Where be yourgibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wontto set the table on a roar? Not one to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen?”(Shakespeare, V, i, 196-199). Hamlet was shocked to see what death does, to seewhat he looked like while he was alive compared to after he perished.
This eyeopening realization for Hamlet puts things into perspective. Another linkbetween life and death in this scene is showed when Hamlet asks the Gravedigger“…How long thou hast been gravemaker? ( Shakespeare, V, i, 145-146) theGravedigger responds with “…It was the very day Hamlet was born…” (Shakespeare,V, i, 151-153). This exchange highlights the continuity of death and the factthat death is prominent. Therefore this scene creates a link between life anddeath for Hamlet. Once the prince is exposed to the physical remains of afriend, he finally understands the certainty of death. The exchange with theGravedigger highlights the fact that people, including royalty, perish.Overall, this scene puts death in perspective.
Inthe grave digger scene of the well-known Shakespearian play, Hamlet, the themeof death is alleviated when the men in this scene jest about a tragic event.The Gravedigger and the Other are included in Hamlet to represent the societyand their lack of seriousness. They transform a dark topic into a light topicof discussion thanks to their jokes and lack of formality. Thus, creating a comicalrelief in the play.
Act 5 scene i, also functions as a stepping stone fromdevelopment to conclusion as it features Hamlet’s realization of the equalizingeffects of death. This is when Hamlet’s obsession of human decompositionbecomes a fear. The grave digger scene also creates a channel amidst life anddeath. Once the prince handles his childhood friend’s skull it ensuesuneasiness amongst Hamlet.
The first scene of the last act has multiplefunctions, but above all it highlights the contrast between life and death inthe Shakespeare’s, Hamlet.