Act 5

Scene 1

The final act of the drama begins with a scene of comic relief involving the gravedigger and his companion. The two discuss rather dimwittedly whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial—that is, a funeral rite approved by the church. Such rites were forbidden to persons who intentionally took their own lives. The question here is whether Ophelia intentionally drowned herself. Apparently an inquest has been held, and it is believed that she was not in her right mind at the time of death and therefore did not kill herself intentionally. Certainly Gertrude’s depiction of what happened reveals no such intention.

The two joke and laugh, and while the companion goes off for a jug of liquor, the gravedigger sings and digs. Hamlet and Horatio enter upon the scene at this moment, and Hamlet remarks that the gravedigger has no feeling for his work. Horatio defends him, suggesting that the custom of digging graves has blunted the sad feelings and reverence that generally accompany death. Hamlet consents to this argument: “The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense,” meaning that he who is unaccustomed to work (such as digging graves) would likely not express the same levity.

Hamlet does not appear to be in the grip of madness. Perhaps Horatio’s company has a balancing effect on him. When the gravedigger kicks up a skull from the grave, it sparks in Hamlet a fresh wave of reflection. Clearly his thoughts are still concerned with death, and judging by the way the gravedigger treats it, he imagines that the skull belonged to some murderer. The fact that he mentions Cain and a politician, “one that would circumvent God,” in the same breath clearly shows that he is still thinking of Claudius, who indeed killed his brother and acts the politician.

Then Hamlet decides that the skull might belong to a courtier—an obvious reference to Polonius. Nonetheless, the disinterment of bones causes Hamlet some unease: “Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to...

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Essays About Hamlet