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.
"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?