Monday, December 7, 2009

Significance of the Gravediggers' Scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet

In William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet gravediggers' scene is one place where seriousness intermingles with the comic element . Apart from serving as a comic relief in the rising tragic action of the play,the grave diggers scene also deals with some other major and important themes of the play. The gravediggers scene,one of the longest scenes of the play is divided into parts: the encounter between Hamlet and Horatio and the two gravediggers and the Ophelia’s burial.The main purposes served by this scene include the comic relief,criticism of the organized religion, giving emphasis on the theme of mortality,foreshadowing the final tragedy ,putting off of Hamlet’s antic disposition and realism.

Comic relief

The scene takes place in the most suspenseful moment of the play. There has been a series of tragic scenes before the grave digger scene. Polonius is killed by Hamlet in Claudius’s bed chamber and as a result Claudius orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to prepare to take Hamlet with them to England. Ophelia goes mad and soon Laertes arrives with mob. Soon Hamlet sends back letters to Horatio and the king that he is coming.So when the audience waits to see the ultimate outcome of all these happenings the two grave diggers come on the stage and engage themselves in a legalistic chop-logic. Thus the grave diggers provide a broad comic relief to an otherwise deadly serious and grim tragedy. The occasional admission of comic ingredient in a tragedy or comic relief is used to calm down the tragic feeling momentarily in order to make it more intensifying. Though Aristotle in his Poetics does not make allowance for the dilution series action, the Elizabethan dramas are replete with instances of the combination of the comic and the tragic elements.This tendency of using the comic in tragedy and its final canonization also became popular in Shakespeare. The comic relief is a regular feature in Shakespeare.The part played by fool in Kinglear, porter in Macbeth is the same as the apart played by the grave diggers in Hamlet.

The scene opens with the legalistic chop-logic between two grave diggers.Commenting on the Ophelia’s death by drowning,the first clown speaks in a light-hearted manner describes the incident in an amusing way.He also questions on the doubtfulness of Ophelia’s death and asks what the proper definition of suicide.

“Here us the water-good here stands the man good
If the man go to this water and drown himself
It is, will he will he, he goes, mark you that. But
If the water come to him, he drowns not himself.”

The first grave digger makes this observation in order to clarify the whether Ophelia committed suicide or she had got drowned accidentally.The first clown then goes on to say that there is no ancient gentleman but grave diggers ,because they hold up Adam’s profession.

He then asks the second clown a question: What is he that builds stronger than either the manson,the ship-wright,or the carpenter?The second clown fails to answer and the first clown then says that it is the grave digger who builds stronger than anybody else because the house that the gravve digger builds lasts till domesday.The grave diggers also comment on the unequal treatment of the church laws.All this is light –hearted talk.

The gravediggers represent a humorous type commonly found in Shakespeare’s plays: the clever commoner who gets the better of his social superior through wit. At the Globe Theater, this type of character may have particularly appealed to the “groundlings,” the members of the audience who could not afford seats and thus stood on the ground.The grave diggers are thus, professed clowns of the play and they provide a unique kind of humor in the play. The humor provided by the grave diggers serve to lighten the tragic stress of Ophelia’s death. The scene would definitely get a laugh from the uneducated groundlings who would enjoy a relief to the long and tension-prevailing play.

Apart from the comic relief two others important things come out this comic scene.The first thing is the criticism of the organized religion and the second thing is the universility of death.

The conversation between these two gravediggers also develops a serious theme that the laws of religion and the state are not same for all. Over the doubtful death of Ophelia the first digger says that the persons of high rank or status should have in this world the right to drown themselves or hang themselves while their fellow Christians do not enjoy the same right.By pointing out that nobles receive different treatment from organized religion than poor people do, the gravediggers show religion is unfair and influenced by appearance rather than the “reality” of someone’s soul. Religion, that bedrock of human life, can’t be trusted, and all of Hamlet’s earlier philosophizing about religion and death, all his agonizing, was pointless.

The comic relief for Shakespeare is in tune with the tragic temper. A Jacobean audience would promptly appreciate the serious intention of this black comedy. The grave diggers of Shakespeare in way represent the grave that Hamlet life has become. The black comedy of the gravediggers suddenly transfers the focus of attention from abstract matters such as love, honor, and revenge to the basic question of human survival. The Gravediggers remind us the commonality of death. Death is not necessarily the solemn and mysterious thing that Hamlet, in "To be or not to be...", contemplates. Death is nothing more that a day's work for these two: it is dirt and stink and toil, and it waits for every one of us.Their speculation on death also serves as a prologue to the ’worm meat’ theme discussed by Hamlet a few minutes after.

Prologue to the ’worm meat’ theme

The gravediggers’ dialogue ,with its emphasis largely on death also serves as a prologue to the ’worm meat’ theme developed in this same scene. While the Second Gravedigger goes to fetch some liquor, Hamlet and Horatio enter and question the First Gravedigger.The gravedigger and Hamlet engage in a witty game of "chop-logic" — repartee composed of a series of questions and answers.When the first grave digger tosses up a skull and dashes it to the ground ,the Prince is impelled by to muse upon death as the great leveler of all people.Throughout the play Hamlet is obsession with the physical decomposition of the body.In his first soliloquy Hamlet contemplates,
O that is too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.

The same contemplation over death and human mortality is further developed in the scene. Hamlet’s obsession with the theme of mortality is evident in his preoccupation with Yorick’s skull, when he envisions physical features such as lips and skin that have decomposed from the bone. Recall that Hamlet previously commented to Claudius that Polonius’s body was at supper, because it was being eaten by worms (IV.iii). He dwells on the subject of death and the fact that all men are worm's meat, that all that lives will one day die, and that no rank or money can change the equality of death.

Hamlet is fascinated by the equalizing effect of death and decomposition: great men and beggars both end as dust. In this scene, Hamlet meditates on the ironic fact that overreaching politicians ,lawyers with their tricks,self-seeking courtiers,vain court ladies even those held to be examplars of greatness in this world ultimately are not more than the ’quintessence of dust’.

He also imagines dust from the decomposed corpses of Alexander and Julius Caesar.Lexander also died and his dead body was reduced to dust in course of time. Dust is eart or clay which is changed into loam for making wall.The imperial ruler Jlius Caesar also died and his dead body was also reduced to dust.Thus death is the great leveler.

2nd part

“Here comes the King” at line 210 moves us abruptly into next unit of action. This second part of the scene ,which consists of the burial of Ophelia serves to revealHamlet’s whole personality and also he finally puts off his antic disposition.The scene ,in which Hamlet appaears as different man also serves as the objective correlative to reveal Hamlet’s inner state of mind.

When Ophelia's body is placed into the grave, Hamlet watches the Queen strew the coffin with flowers. "Sweets to the sweet," she says; "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." Hamlet now realizes that it is Ophelia who lies dead in the casket.Laertes ,no longer able to restrain himself,cries out in grief and then leaps into the grave,asking that he be buried with his sister.At this point Hamlet steps forward and demands to know why Laertes should so emphasize his sorrow.He says

I loved Ophelia .Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum.What wilt thau do for her?

Here Hamlet comes out of his pretended madness when he faces the reality of the death of Ophelia, the young woman he has always loved. It is heart-rending for him to observe Ophelia's burial and realize he has lost her forever. Preoccupied with his vengeance, he knows he has allowed her to slip from his grasp into the river. He now feels utterly alone, having lost his father, mother, and true love. When he can take the pain no longer, he jumps into Ophelia's grave beside Laertes. This totally human response from Hamlet demonstrates that no amount of philosophizing can reduce heartache and that no amount of vengeance can fill the void left by the death of a loved one

The gravediggers scene is a pause between the rapidly rising action of the last few tragic scenes and the upcoming final tragedy. It also allows the audience to again see Hamlet in his normal disposition. Possessing a fine sense of humor, he is capable of appreciating the wit of the gravediggers even in the midst of his troubles. Possessing a depth of sensitivity and emotion, Hamlet frees himself from pretense and openly expresses his grief by entering Ophelia's grave; he does not realize that he will soon be entering his own grave.

Thus the scene intensifies the effect of tragedy. In this sense, the effect is paradoxical. Its humour provides a catastrophe that is to follow. It is the calm before the storm. Simultaneously, the eerie atmosphere of the play adds to the aura of the tragedy. The amalgamates of comic sequences introduces low tragedy into a high tragic situation. In there cases, the function of the comic scene is not only to provide relief and lesson the tragic-illusion, but also to intensify the tragic.


One technical purpose served by this scene is realism,for which Samuel Johnson so highly praised Shakespeare.Johnson said that Shakespeare is very realistin in his portrayal of the world. In the real world the suffering of one person has hardly any effect on the life of the other persons. In real world some go to the pub and some others go to bury the death.This naturalistic portrayal is seen through the gravediggers. Death is tragic, painful, somber, grotesque. But who ever knew that death could even be laughed at. But here the gravediggers engage themselves in merrimaking and singing and tossing of the human skulls.

In Kinglear, the fool serves precisely the purpose of providing relief with words of ironic significance, constantly reminding tears of his own foolishness. The fool actually exists on the margins of tragedy and comedy. He even helps fear to plunge into the tragedy of madness. In Macbeth, the function of the porter scene is equally ambiguous. The porter's drunken merriment relieves the horror of Duncan's murder and at the same time confines Macbeth castle to hell. Like the porter and the fool, the grave diggers introduce symbolic dimension in the play, making in realize the philosophers of death.