Summary and Analysis Act V: Scene 1


Two gravediggers (called clowns) discuss the burial for which they are digging. An inquest has declared the corpse fit for Christian burial. The First Gravedigger argues that the dead woman deserves no such indulgence, because she drowned herself and is not worthy of salvation. The other gravedigger explains, using misplaced words (malapropisms) and incorrect syntax, that she deserves defending. He reasons that her gentlewoman's rank should earn her a Christian burial. Their dialogue, played for humor, invokes references to the Bible and to the art of gallows-making, where builders build a frame that outlives its tenants. 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" — repartée composed of a series of questions and answers. The gravedigger tells Hamlet that he has been digging graves since the day Old King Hamlet defeated Old King Fortinbras, the very birthday of Prince Hamlet — "he that's mad, and sent to England" — thirty years ago.

Hamlet drives the comic dialectic (a dialectic is a method of examining an idea in which every question posed poses a new question). He mulls again over the nature of life and death, and the great chasm between the two states. He tosses skulls and parries with the possibilities of what each may have been in life. He asks the gravedigger whose grave he is in, and the gravedigger plays with puns, finally asserting that the grave is one who was a woman. Hamlet has no idea to whom the grave belongs.

When Hamlet finds a particular skull, he asks the gravedigger whose it might be. The gravedigger tells him the skull belonged to Yorick, the King's jester. "I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." 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. Death transforms even great kings like Alexander into trivial objects.

Hamlet and Horatio then observe that the Queen, King, and ">Laertes arrive among a group of mourners escorting a coffin. He asks whose coffin they're following, and hides with Horatio to listen in to what's happening. He notes that the funeral is not a full Christian rite but that the body is being interred in sacred ground.

Laertes argues with the priest over Ophelia's burial. Claudius' command at inquest, he argues, should grant her all the rites of a Christian burial. The priest refuses, saying that, because she committed suicide, he must deny Ophelia the requiem mass and other trappings of a Christian burial, even though Ophelia will be buried on sacred ground. Laertes insults the priest.

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, and he attacks Laertes, who has just cursed Hamlet and thrown himself into the grave. Hamlet and Laertes argue over who loved Ophelia best. Laertes tries to strangle Hamlet, but attendants separate them.

Gertrude decries her son's madness. Claudius asks Horatio to look after Hamlet and promises Laertes immediate satisfaction. He instructs Gertrude to have her son watched, implying that another death will serve as Ophelia's memorial.

Continued on next page...

Back to Top