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What is the importance of the gravedigger scene in the story of "Hamlet"?

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milado | Student, College Freshman | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted December 21, 2008 at 3:59 PM via web

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What is the importance of the gravedigger scene in the story of "Hamlet"?

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parkerlee | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted December 21, 2008 at 4:30 PM (Answer #1)

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Shakespeare often uses tertiary characters such as gravediggers, clowns, or country bumpkins for comic relief. Their bawdy dialogue is context for social criticism and is used to make a parody of manners (contrast of the social classes; identification with the human condition in general). 

However, in 'Hamlet' the gravedigger scene stages Hamlet's discovery of the skull of the court jester he knew as a child and inspires his musings over the brevity of life. This soliloquy in turn serves as a precursor for his learning about Ophelia's death, as he unwittingly witnesses her funeral procession. 

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted December 21, 2008 at 9:44 PM (Answer #2)

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It's an absolutely key scene. Shakespeare is an absolute master at juxtaposing the comic with the dramatic: and the two gravediggers' comic dialogue which precedes Hamlet's entrance prepares the ground for real surprise when the same grave, only a few hundred lines later, becomes the site of an impassioned fight between Hamlet and Laertes.

It's often the name of the game in Shakespeare's "comic relief" scenes that the themes reflect in a comic way the wider themes of the play. Thus, the opening argument about whether Ophelia "drown'd herself wittingly" reflects the play's concern with suicide - as outlined earlier in the "to be or not to be" soliloquy.

The scene also achieves precisely the absurdity which baffles Hamlet: the juxtaposition of death with comedy. It's no accident that the gravediggers are designated as "First Clown" and "Second Clown". Thus we have jokes about the pre-eminence of death: the gravemaker's houses "last till doomsday." And death even visits Yorick in the scene - an absent clown, now just a skull, who Hamlet and the gravedigger remember as "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy". Even funny men - even men who tell jokes - die.

It's a brilliant scene which focusses the theme of "death" ready for the play's final scene and Hamlet's death - and provides the final comic moment of the play before the denouement of the tragedy.

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