In "Hamlet", what is the purpose of Act V, Scene 1 with the gravedigger and his helpers?
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The first purpose of this scene is what we call "comic relief". Many of the events leading up to this scene have been filled with drama and sadness. We have just learned Ophelia killed herself, Laertes and Claudius are planning to poison Hamlet, Hamlet has returned to Denmark and the audience is trying to adjust to all of this. In order to lighten the mood and give the audience a chance to absorb everything that is happening, Shakespeare inserts the comical grave digger's scene. This offers relief from all the sad events that have been occurring Yet is also offers some serious thoughts on life, its brevity and final outcome. This helps prepare the audience for the final scenes of the play.
This scene is also significant because of the comments made regarding the burial of Ophelia. According to the laws of the time a suicide death, which is what is believed happened to Ophelia, has to be treated differently than a death of natural or heroic causes. The suicide must be buried facing a particular direction and must be interred in a designated burial ground. There were also strict laws pertaining to who could bless or perform the burial rights over the body. If you reread Hamlet notice what the gravediggers are saying to one another regarding the upcoming funeral. Yes, there is joking but this important scene is much more than comic relief.
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