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Significance of the ‘Grave-digger scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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Department of English
University of Chittagong Submitted by: A.T.M. Mohitul Islam M.A. (Final) Class Roll: 8293 Department of English University of Chittagong

Significance of the gravedigger scene

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he gravedigger scene in Hamlet is one of the most analyzed, criticized, and commented ones in English literature. It is the icon image of the play, as it is shown, ‘a man holding a human skull in his hand’, just as the ‘blooded dagger’ refers to Macbeth, another tragedy by Shakespeare. Therefore, it requires a close and careful study to examine the significance of the scene.

We have to look for why the very scene is set on the plot; the characteristic, setting, and the intention of the scene should be examined; and to do so, we have to study it part by part, e.g. the gravedigger’s part, Hamlet’s meditation, Ophelia’s funeral and so on. It is also important to see what impact it gives to the main plot of the play.

Later, we will give a look to the comments by the other critics also.

The characteristic of the very scene is very different and unique one. All the other scenes of the play are full of tension, gloomy, and full of very much complicated dialogues. On the contrary, this one is a scene of laughter, jokes, and comics. After a long time of bloodshed, intrigue, and heavyweight witty debate, it is a comic relief for the audiences. This scene is a sharp contrast to the other entire palace scenes through which we enter into the common world of general people where there is no conspiracy, hypocrisy, or any other complexity of upper class lives. We have to notice that the gravediggers are designated as clowns in the stage direction and prompts; and it is important to note that in Shakespeare’s time the word clown referred to a rustic or peasant, and did not mean that the person in question was funny or wore a costume.

The comic conversation does not derive from their special power to make men laugh, rather from their innocence; the uneducated, rustic and simple mind of these two commoner are the very source of their unintentional jokes. In fact, they do not joke, but the audiences laugh at their conversation that is full of unconscious irony. The gravediggers become the commentators of the entire play from a third point angle. The two clowns give us comments on public events of ordinary working people who understand little what is happening in the palace. Such scenes have the special importance in a social context of the main action, for the fortunes of the people follow those of their governors; although these people rarely understand the ins and outs of what is happening to them. They must endure and obey; they may marvel and comment.

The setting of the play is very remarkable. It is the only scene that takes place outside the palace, and very uncommonly, in a cemetery. Clearly, it is a variation to the monotonic castle setting. Generally a graveyard is a symbol of death, but Shakespeare made it a confrontation of Hamlet to the reality of life (Is not it the confrontation of us, the audiences, also?). Digging grave, the human skull suppose to be a gloomy environment; but, in reality, it is reversed! The two clowns make it a lively one.

For Hamlet’s part, the skull of Yorick is a cue. He becomes nostalgic to see it, and it gives him a deep insight of the ultimate destiny of human life. Death is here a concrete one than an abstract one. Here he gets the touch of physicality of death with the idea of the decomposition of human body. Not only that, here the audiences get the full-length image of Hamlet’s character as a ‘human being’ who has deep emotion that is ‘out of control’.
For the first time, here, he loses control over the situation. He cannot harness conversation with the clowns whereas he did it very well while talking to the king, the queen, Polonius, or any other else. He used to ridicule the counterpart deliberately; but here he is subject to the clowns’ ridicule. It is clear when he asks the first clown whether he knows the real cause of the madness of the prince-

Hamlet: How he came made?
F. C: Very strangely, they say.
Hamlet: How strangely?
F.c: Faith, e’en with losing his wits.
Hamlet: Upon what ground?
F.c: Why, here in Denmark….

By asking the ‘ground’ Hamlet did not ask for the name of the land where he losses wits but for the very reason. However, the clown does not go with his purpose. He answered in a straight but comical way. Here, losing the hope to get real answer, Hamlet changes the topic –‘How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?’

Generally, he is a very strong person possessing a philosophical mind that acts very rationally and thinks well before doing any deed; and he is ‘pretending’ to be an insane. However, here, astonishingly, he jumped into the grave and makes a quarrel with Laertes. Here he seems to be a ‘real’ insane. It is very much uncommon to his character but it reveals the fact that he is not a robot who will perform always in a same manner. He does also posses the humanly weaknesses. And, actually, this weakness gives him the fulfillment to be a human character.

The funeral of Ophelia is a court ceremonial. However, this ceremony is not supposed to be performed because her death is not a normal one, at least not for sure. By the conversation of the clowns, Shakespeare let us to be informed, or makes us think about the way she died, whether she committed suicide or not. It is demonstration of the hypocrisy of the theology also. Later, He introduces his audiences with the hypocrisy of the social and
class discrimination. Even after supposedly committing suicide, she is being buried on the churchyard. If she were a lower class individual, she would not get this honor. Thus, we can assume, this very scene is important to stage the real social condition of the then Europe.

This scene is very significant for a dramatic purpose also. We have said before that it is comic relief. Besides, to some critics, this scene is an intensifier to the tragic effect. According to their suggestion, the effect is a paradoxical one. Its humor provides a catastrophe that is to follow. ‘It is the calm before the storm’. There is another argument given by some other critics for showing the reason of setting the scene in the plot. According to their opinion, Shakespeare added this scene in the plot just to give an opportunity to the minor actors of his company to act. Some says, there were a number of uneducated audiences of Shakespeare who did not have even enough money to secure a chair to watch the play. That indicates that they were very lower class audiences who might not be intelligent enough to get much entertainment from weighty and witty dialogues. Shakespeare designed this lighter scene to entertain these people. However, this scene is no more serving these purposes only. Now, after examining the scene very closely and carefully, we have found many more other powerful significances of this scene; and it is proved that the significance of this scene is inevitable to the plot of the play.

Cite this Significance of the ‘Grave-digger scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Significance of the ‘Grave-digger scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/significance-of-the-grave-digger-scene-in-shakespeares-hamlet/

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