Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act V, Scene 1 -- Part One

These last two scenes are sooooooo good and so important that I am splitting them both in half so we can squeeze every last drop of meaning and pleasure out of them.  So in this post, we'll look at lines 1 through 199 of this scene, ending where Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and others enter.

We open with a complete break in tone from the rest of the play.  We have two Gravediggers, also listed as Clowns, and they are quite a comedy duo, aren't they?  Their initial conversation is full of double entendres, mocking mimicry of lawyerly phrases, and little riddles.  They're the epitome of gallows-humor, aren't they? 

But we do learn something from them:  they're digging the grave of a noblewoman who is suspected of having committed suicide.  Obviously, this is Ophelia's grave, and people aren't convinced that her death was an accident.  The seemingly eye-witness account Gertrude gave would surely support the idea that it was unintentional, but I guess the general populace is not convinced?  Or at least the priest isn't, which we'll get into more in the second half of this scene.

Then off goes the Second Gravedigger to get some liquid refreshments, and in come Hamlet and Horatio.  Can you feel a difference in Hamlet?  I get the sense that he's cheerier, freer, much more easy-going than intense.  He's bantering with Horatio, and I imagine this must be more like what he was like back in Wittenberg before this all started.

Notice Hamlet brings up Cain and Abel, though.  He's clearly still thinking about Claudius and his father.  So it's not like being gone has made him forget his troubles.  It's more like he's come to terms with what he has to do and isn't fretting about it anymore.  That's my take, anyway.

He's also very fascinated with this idea of death and decay, isn't he?  Remember back in IV, 3 where he mentioned that we are all food for maggots in the end, king and commoner alike?  We revisit that idea here a bunch, that it doesn't matter how important you are in this life -- your body will return to dust in the end.  Later in this scene, he also muses on how even Alexander the Great came to the same end as anyone else.  

I think Hamlet has come to accept that he's going to die, whether he avenges his father or not -- Claudius wants him dead and will certainly achieve his aim one way or the other, unless Hamlet kills him first.  And if Hamlet kills King Claudius, he will be guilty of regicide and probably executed himself.  So now he's examining what's going to happen to him sooner or later -- his body will return to dust, his bones might get disturbed when someone else's grave is dug close to his, and no one will care.  In the end, he's not all that important.

And then Hamlet and First Gravedigger start conversing, and the zingers fly!  Harold Bloom calls this guy "the only personage in the play witty enough to hold his own with Hamlet" (Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited, 5), and I really feel like that's true.  Hamlet jokes that this guy is "absolute" or overly precise.  (That bit in Guardians of the Galaxy where Drax says "Nothing goes over my head -- my reflexes are too fast" totally made me think of First Gravedigger.)  But really the gravedigger is just super clever and witty, like Hamlet, and the two are delighting each other with their quippy wordplay.  I love the joke about people in England being mad, so no one would notice Hamlet's madness here -- I imagine that got a big laugh when this was originally played in London :-)

First Gravedigger tosses up a skull and announces that it belonged to Yorick, who had been the king's jester when Hamlet was a child.  They do a bit of musing about what a funny fellow Yorrick was, and Hamlet gets kind of grossed out by holding the skull of someone he once knew and loved.  Which, yeah, pretty gross and creepy there, Hamlet.

And then here comes the burial party, where we'll stop.  I do want to quick say, though, that Hamlet's last line before everyone enters is "But soft, but soft a while" (199), and way back in III,1 when Ophelia was coming, he ended his soliloquy with "Soft you now" (87).  Both times it means "hush" or "be quiet" or "stop talking about this," but I really think that having him use that same basic phrase has to be Shakespeare cluing us the audience in to... something.  Reminding us that Ophelia has died and this is who will be buried?  Telling us Hamlet suspects it could be Ophelia?  Usually he's played as very surprised to learn she's dead, but if Horatio warned him that she's gone mad, might he suspect that the woman to be buried might be she?  Possibly suspect it unconsciously, even?  I don't know, just thought I'd point out the similarity and see if anyone else had any thoughts.

Favorite Lines:

"The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense" (63-64).

"How absolute the knave is!  We must speak by the book, or equivocation will undo us" (122-23).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you sense a difference in Hamlet?  If you do, what are your thoughts on how and/or why he has changed?  If you don't, what makes you feel like he's still behaving and feeling the same way?

Why do you think Hamlet staring at Yorick's skull has become the instantly-recognizable icon for this play?  Why that, out of all the memorable moments in the play?


  1. Yes, for want of a better word, I'd say there's a new maturity. In the last soliloquy, he says "my thoughts be bloody or nothing worse." But within days or perhaps just hours, he finds R&G's dispatch, and takes what is very likely his first step in bloodshed:he revises the dispatch to order R&G's death. He engages in combat with the pirates. By now the adrenalin must be pumping. Although by proxy, he has participated in the deaths of R&G. He has tasted blood. He has engaged in hand to hand combat with the pirates, and is successful by negotiation or maybe by skill.I think negotiation more likely. Would he have any sort of weapon, under the circumstances? More likely not. That's unlikely, on his way to his death.

    But these experiences have taken some of the edge off of his moods.He is no longer preoccupied with suicide. He has allowed himself the name of courage.There's a calmness now.
    Claudis is probably closer to death than ever.
    Now, why that skull? Unless we have surviving records describing the stage action, the best we can do is go back to Sir Laurence Olivier who set the 'modern' stage.The text tells us Hamlet is puzzled and somewhat put-off by the skull & its identity. An alternate setting: When the Digger identifies poor Yorick, Hamlet drops the skull. But he takes up the shovel & stands it in the heap of loose dirt. He places the skull on top of the shovel. He kneels on one knee, putting himself eye to eye with it.All of the questions he had in all of those soliloquies are smoothed over. He occasionally brushes the dirt from his of fingers.There is an earnestness rather than a disgusted sense about death. You feel that this little experience is the answer "to be or not to be." It's an assurance that "not to be" is not to fear.

    1. "Maturity" is a pretty good way to put it. Hamlet kind of grows up while he's gone, doesn't he? No longer so focused on himself. And his confrontation here with the ultimate sense of "not to be" kind of cements that, I think.

  2. I liked the grave-digging clowns. Why are they called clowns though? Just because they're funny?

    Hamlet does seem more at peace. I guess he's really ready to act now...!

    It seems very strange to me that skulls are being dug up in the first place. They just bury people and then dig them up again later to bury someone else? (And they still smell bad???) But yeah, I was waiting for a skull to show up, because that's something that always seems to be a symbol for Hamlet. Right now I can't think of any other physical object that's particularly memorable as a Hamlet thing, so maybe that's why.

    1. Sarah, "clowns" also meant "peasants" or "jesters," and the gravediggers definitely use a less-polished way of speaking. That one of them knew the king's jester Yorick also ties them to jesters. But mostly I think it's a stage direction of sorts -- acting troupes back then would have members who specialized in comic parts, so Shakespeare is saying he wants those people to play the gravediggers.

      It does seem weird that they're burying people on top of other people. Perhaps they had a specific cemetery for members of the Danish court and were running out of room? Maybe they had flooding issues and bodies moved in the graveyard a bit? I don't know.

  3. Interesting scene this far, with lots of puns and banter, I think you shall read it many times to get the jokes.
    And the scull showed up! I had always imagined it would be present in one of the famous soliloquies, like the "to be or not to be" scene.
    Well, if the scull somehow symbolises death, you can argue it certainly sums up a lot of the plot..

    1. Rose, one of the advantages of reading different editions of this play is that they each explain some different things, so that different nuances, puns, etc become clear.

      And yup, here's the skull. Hamlet does muse on life and death a lot, and there are a ton of deaths in the play, so you're right, it's easy to see why this play is tied to the image of the skull, or Hamlet looking at the skull.


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