In Hamlet how does gravedigger /clown scene of Act V serve to develop character, plot, or conflict?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is always important to remember that Shakespeare's plays were attended by a wide audience; thus, after the tragic events of the first four acts, the gravediggers'[clowns'] scene is one which admits this wider appeal to all levels of society by providing some bawdy humor and relevance to the contemporary lives of Shakespeare's Londoners, a technique that aids in the audience's comprehension of major themes. This injection of humor with commoners also serves to humanize Hamlet and effect maturity in him.

  • With the commentary and the riddles of this scene of comic relief, then, the contemporary audience can better relate to the content of the plot. The use of such references draws the audience in, as, for instance, one of the gravediggers says, "go, get thee to Yaughan, fetch me a stoup of liquor," alluding to a nearby innkeeper. As some of the humor ridicules those of a higher social order from them (e.g. the comment about the judgment of the coroner and other officials), the commoners in attendance are drawn in to the drama in their delight of this humor at the expense of the socially elite. Moreover, the discussion in the language of the commoners of the moral corruption synthesizes the points of view of the more erudite with the common, thereby leading to comprehension of the major themes by all the audience. For example, in the opening of Scene 5 of the final act, one of the gravediggers questions (humorously, of course) what constitutes suicide after the first one says that the coroner "finds it Christian burial."

How can that be, unless she drown'd herself in
her own defence? ....

It must be se offendendo; it cannot be else. For
here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an
act; and an act hath three branches: it is to act, to do, and to
perform; argal, she drown'd herself wittingly (5.1.9-12)

In addition to the underscoring of the existential theme of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy, the parody of legal jargon in this conversation between two commoners also points to the theme of the corruption of politics begun with the usurping of the throne by Claudius in his heinous act against King Hamlet.

  • Hamlet's interaction with the gravediggers makes him more human. For the gravedigger ponders the same existential question as Hamlet when he poses the question of Ophelia's suicide albeit with dark humor. And, again, the gravedigger/clown's clever conquering of Hamlet with his humor delights the commoners in the audience as well as providing comic relief for all and helping to make Hamlet more earthly.
  • The graveyard scene also helps to develop Hamlet's character. Renowned Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom writes,

Nothing of Hamlet's 'antic disposition' lingers after the graveyard scene, even there the madness has evolved into an intense irony directed at the gross images of death.

Indeed, it is a seriously intent Hamlet that enters the next scene, a Hamlet whose actions are in strong contrast to his actions and thoughts of the previous acts. He is ironical, then, in that he is "not a likely avenger" as Bloom observes, "because his intellectual freedom, his capriciousness...seem so at odds with his Ghost-imposed mission." Certainly, Hamlet does exhibit a maturity not present in earlier acts.