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Tyler Prendergast Intro to Literature Zepernick Essay One The final act of Hamlet begins with the gravedigger

scenethat is, a memorable comedic exchange first between two gravediggers (referred to in the text as First Clown and Second Clown) and a subsequent exchange between the First Clown and Hamlet himself. This scene contributes to the play in three important ways: first, as a source of comic relief amidst otherwise morbid circumstances; second, for its sharp social commentary; and third, for its valuable insights into the character of Hamlet. As act five begins, the world of the play has deteriorated from the profoundly unpleasant (that is, the situation at the start of act one) to the desperately depressing. Now, in addition to Hamlets fathers death and his mothers unfortunate marriage, Hamlet has (accidentally?) killed Polonius, (possibly) gone mad, and (definitely) been sent to England. In addition, it has just been revealed that Ophelia has not only lost her mind, but drowned herself as well. These less-than-enlivening circumstances would undoubtedly begin to press upon the audience of the playwho, after all, had paid admission to be entertained and distracted from the troubles in their own lives, and not to be downtrodden even further. For these reasons, it only seems fair to the audience that there be some form of comic relief after such a continual parade of tragic events. The gravedigger scene provides this much-needed relief. However, rather than throwing a random humorous situation into the otherwise gloomy landscape, Shakespeare uses this opportunity to further extrapolate on a theme which has run throughout the play as a whole: that is, death. He does so using a method which has similarly become familiar to us through the first four acts: that is, wordplay. Both of these have often preoccupied Hamlet, and

the gravedigger serves as a parallel to him in this manner. Both spend the majority of their time thinking of deathbut while it seems that the two have much in common, Hamlet is initially offended by the gravedigger, as his first lines in the scene indicate: Has this fellow no feeling of his business, a sings in gravemaking? (226). Herein lies the the fundamental difference between the two otherwise comparable characters: while Hamlet gloomily ruminates upon death, the gravedigger is able to make light of it. And make light of it he does: line after line, in dialogue with both his colleague and his prince, the gravedigger continually jokes and banters about death, pun after pun, completely irreverent in his humor. In this way, he allows the audience to take a breath from the intense psychological ramblings of Hamlet and the political-minded plotting of Claudius and experience the play, briefly, as a more basic level of entertainment. The gravedigger even manages to outwit Hamlet, who has thus far always been seen as the character confounding all the others: here, this dynamic is reversed, as Hamlet, the lover of words, finds himself tripping over his own in an effort to communicate with the gravedigger: How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us (137-138). This irony, along with the numerous puns and clever turns of phrase, delights and entertains the reader while giving them a respite from the darker goings-on of the rest of the play. In addition to the somewhat practical purpose of adding comic relief to an otherwise morose and melancholic story, the gravedigger scene also serves as a vehicle for Shakespeares social commentary. Indeed, these two clowns are the first examples of common people we have met throughout the playthey appear in stark juxtaposition with the rest of the characters, all of noble or royal status, and thus can show the audience an alternative perspective not yet seen. The second clown presents the hypocrisies of the nobility through the

example of Ophelias suicide: If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o Christian burial (23-25). In other words, the nobility, while professing faith in the Christian religion, makes to excuse sins committed by fellow nobles which would in the common people require eternal damnation. They can essentially get away with these sins simply because they are of noble blood. Another example of social commentary comes later, when the first clown speaks to Hamlet (unknowingly) about Hamlet himself. Hamlet asks, Ay, why was he sent to England? (149). The gravedigger responds, Why, because a was mad. A shall recover his wits there, or if a do not, tis no great matter there (150-152). When asked why, he continues: Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he (154-155). Essentially, Shakespeare (being from England) is commenting on the ludicrous nature of his own peoplepossibly alluding to some recent political happenings which would have been picked up on by the audience at the time, but that is purely speculationthrough the guise of a Danish character commenting on a foreign nation. In this way, Shakespeare would have been unlikely to upset the authorities as he might have by directly insulting his own country. Finally, the gravedigger scene provides the audience with a number of insights into Hamlets character which would have otherwise gone undiscovered. First (and perhaps most obvious) is Hamlets age, which until this point had never been discussed. The first clown states that he has been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years (161-162). Previously, he had stated that he had been a gravedigger since the day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras (144) which he then states was the same day that young Hamlet was born (147148). Thus, it can be deduced that Hamlet is thirty years oldan important fact which appears nowhere else in the play.

Also presented in this scene alone is information of Hamlets childhood, in the form of his monologue about Yorick, whohaving been dead for three-and-twenty years (172) Hamlet knew when he was less than seven years old. It is interesting that, in a play called Hamlet, we learn very little about the titular characters history before the play began. Here we are presented with some small gleanings of information about his early years, learning that he spent a great deal of time with Yorick, the Kings jester (180), a fellow of infinite jest (184). This passage indicates that Hamlet was very likely once a happy person, in contrast to his present-day melancholy, who loved to spend time laughing at jokes and flashes of merriment (189). Now, Yoricks skull represents the death of the childhood joviality Hamlet once possessed. This monologue adds a great depth to Hamlets character unseen in the rest of the play. In conclusion, the gravedigger scene is undeniably crucial: to the audiences understanding of Hamlets character; to the audiences perception of Shakespeares commentary upon his own society; and to the audiences ability to stand (in some cases, literally) watching this otherwise depressing play for hours on end. If this scene were to be excised, the play as a whole would lack a certain sense of depth which, when present, the gravedigger scene providesin spades.

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