Summary and Analysis
Act V: Scene 1
The most serious act in the play begins with the broadest comedy in ">Shakespeare's repertory. The tragic conclusion begins with two gravediggers — usually played as country bumpkins — who banter over the circumstances of Ophelia's death. The characters are derived from a tradition of performance called Commedia del'Arte, an originally Italian clowning technique that was very popular in Renaissance theater throughout Europe. This dialogue introduces the audience to the notion that Ophelia has killed herself, even though Gertrude's report made the death seem accidental. The gravediggers indulge in a spate of black comedy that culminates in Hamlet's matching wits with the adeptly paradoxical First Gravedigger.
Shakespeare's juxtaposing of lofty concepts such as theological law against the lowliness of the gravediggers' station works as the essence of this scene's comedy. The First Gravedigger employs clever malapropisms and provides yet another foil for Hamlet — a base commoner whose sense of irony and paradox matches Hamlet's own, but amuses rather than tortures the thinker.
Shakespeare reiterates his theme of death as the great equalizer in this scene. He also explores the absolute finality of death. Each of the gravediggers' references to death foreshadows Hamlet's imminent participation in several deaths, including his own. Hamlet and the gravedigger humorously discuss Hamlet's preoccupation with worm's meat and the destruction of time. The gravedigger mentions Cain and "the first foul murder," which reminds the audience that Claudius, too, is a brother killer.
The question of Ophelia's suicide alludes to a contemporary court case wherein the court barred Sir James Hall from receiving a Christian burial because he killed himself. Shakespeare undoubtedly built this part of the scene deliberately to show his support for the court's decision. The explanation of Ophelia's burial offered in most criticisms is that the grave is on the periphery of the sacred ground, in an area reserved for those whose Christianity might be questionable. Yorick for one. This is supported by the fact that there are so many skulls in the grave; it's a common grave, not an individualized, consecrated resting place.
Laertes and Hamlet's fight symbolizes Hamlet's internal struggle to control his inability to act. Hamlet's challenging Laertes, whom he calls "a very noble youth," is uncharacteristically rash. Faced with his mirror opposite, a man who is all impassioned action and few words, Hamlet grapples to prove that he loved Ophelia though he was unable to demonstrate his feelings for her.
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