In Shakespeare's Hamlet, what is the effect of the clowns' conversation in Act 5?
Act V of William Shakespeare's Hamlet opens in a church graveyard. Two characters, First Clown and Second Clown, are dutifully digging a grave that is intended for Ophelia, the beautiful daughter of the scheming Polonius and the girl with whom Hamlet had been deeply infatuated. The two clowns discuss the question of whether Ophelia should be buried in a Christian cemetery because she committed suicide. As the second clown observes, the dead girl's social status appears to carry greater weight in some circumstances than does religious orthodoxy: "If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should been have buried out o' Christian burial."
This exchange between the two grave-diggers suggests that Shakespeare intended the opening of Act V as a comment on social distinctions. It is not, however, the most important element in terms of the play's most compelling theme. Rather, it is Hamlet and Horatio's arrival at the graveyard and their observations of the two grave-diggers that provide the more significant commentary. As the two grave-diggers nonchalantly toss aside the skulls uncovered during the process of preparing the land for its next occupant, Hamlet contemplates the condition of one of the skulls, and comments upon the nature of life and how we all eventually die: "Alexander was died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust." Hamlet is commenting upon the universality of mortality; all people, no matter their stature in life, end up as dust. In a play where the central character is concerned with questions of life and death, this scene, late in the play, is of considerable narrative importance.
The Gravediggers in Act V help to show what type of burial is being prepared for sweet Ophelia--a worthy Christian one. However, they two men know that that she was drowned and it was more than likely a suicide. They know that usually, suicides are not given "Christian" burials because it is a sin to kill, hence, a sin to kill oneself. They try to reason to themselves why it is possible that she is given permission to have a Christian burial. One suggests that maybe she was just standing on the shore and the water attacked her! This brings up a comical image for educated people, but also shows their lack of education. Even though they might not be as educated as Hamlet is, they know about social classes and pretty much figure out that since she was a noblewoman, she was granted a Christian burial even though the "rules" say otherwise for suicides. This scene sets up Hamlet's later entrance where he discusses death as the equalizer of all people. No matter who a person was in life, everyone meets the same end in the grave.