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

This scene serves two functions: it provides a moment of comic relief, since the gravediggers love to joke about their line of work, and it provides Hamlet with a moment to confront his own mortality. Hamlet has had to grapple with the idea of death throughout the entire play, but here is the first moment where he actually comes face-to-face with what it means to die. Holding Yorick's skull, he struggles to wrap his head around the fact that even the most vibrant people die and decay in the end—even Alexander the Great was ultimately nothing but bones.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, often referred to as the "gravedigger scene" or the "Alas, poor Yorick" scene, not only does Shakespeare provide the audience with a scene of comic relief , he also gives the audience new information and a look at the events of...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, often referred to as the "gravedigger scene" or the "Alas, poor Yorick" scene, not only does Shakespeare provide the audience with a scene of comic relief, he also gives the audience new information and a look at the events of the play through the eyes of the "common people."

In act 4, scene 7, Claudius and Laertes are plotting Hamlet's death. Gertrude interrupts them to tell them that Ophelia is dead: she has drowned in a brook. What Gertrude says leads the audience to believe that Ophelia's death was an accident. Ophelia was holding onto a branch of a tree when she leaned out over a brook: the branch broke, and Ophelia fell into the brook and drowned.

The very first line of the conversation between the First and Second Gravedigger poses an entirely different question of how Ophelia died.

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER. Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?

Shakespeare's audience would have understood exactly what that line means. There's a question of whether Ophelia committed suicide, and, if she did, can she receive a "Christian burial"? This is new information.

A little later in the scene, after the Gravediggers have discussed the issue further, the Gravediggers add the perspective of the "common people" about the burial.

SECOND GRAVEDIGGER. Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o' Christian burial.

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER. Why, there thou say'st! And the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian.

The Second Gravedigger remarks that if Ophelia hadn't been in the upper class, she wouldn't have been given a "Christian burial." The First Gravedigger responds ruefully that people in the upper class gets away with whatever they like.

Hamlet and Horatio enter the scene after this conversation has taken place, so neither of them has any idea that Ophelia might have committed suicide. Hamlet realizes this only at the end of the scene, when he sees the burial procession approaching—"This doth betoken / The corse they follow did with desperate hand / Fordo its own life."

Even though Hamlet asks the Gravedigger, "Whose grave's this, sirrah?," he doesn't get a straight answer. Hamlet can deduce from what the Gravedigger tells him that the grave is being dug for a woman, but Hamlet doesn't realize that the grave is for Ophelia until the burial procession comes to the grave at the end of the scene.

The Gravediggers also provide the common people's perspective about Hamlet's behavior in the play.

Hamlet asks the First Gravedigger, "How long hast / thou been a grave-maker?"

The Gravedigger replies that he's been a gravedigger since "that day / that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras," which is also "the very day that young Hamlet was born....he that is mad, and sent into England."

Word of Hamlet's erratic behavior has somehow filtered down to the common people of Hamlet's (and Shakespeare's) day, who seem to be as interested in the behavior of the royals, celebrities, and upper classes as the common people of our day.

Other information that the audiences receives in this scene concerns Hamlet himself. Until this scene, the audience doesn't know how old Hamlet is.

HAMLET. ... How long hast
thou been a grave-maker? ...

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER. ... [Since] the very day that young Hamlet was born.

... I have been sexton here,
man and boy, thirty years.

The audience knows very little about Hamlet's life before he came back from school at Wittenberg after his father's death. They know he had friends—Horatio, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "being of so young days brought up with him"—and it seems that Hamlet also had a romantic relationship with Ophelia.

Beyond that, however, Hamlet's early life is a mystery, until the First Gravedigger unearths a skull.

HAMLET. Who's was it? ...

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER. ...This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the King's jester.

HAMLET. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him,
Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times....

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.

It's possible that Hamlet's best friend when he was a child, and perhaps even Hamlet's father figure when old Hamlet was off at war, was the king's jester, Yorick.

It's not surprising that, while Hamlet is standing in a graveyard holding Yorick's skull, he would pause for a moment to consider his mortality and his place in history.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Videos

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The beginning of the grave digger scene is a comedic one. It is true that Shakespeare's plays, even tragedies, have comedic moments to lighten the mood for the audience. It is a very difficult thing to accomplish and shows once more what an excellent writer Shakespeare was.

However, I think that the bigger importance of the scene is a revelation that Hamlet experiences as he stares at the skull of a jester whom he grew up with. He suddenly realizes the inevitability of death and that death does not discriminate among people. 

Remember the lines where Hamlet speaks of Alexander the Great and how he concludes by saying that Alexander could now be mud, used to fill in walls to keep the wind out? Regardless of how great man is, he will taste death and he will turn to dust and become a part of the soil, nothing more. It this great truth that Hamlet thinks deeply about in this scene, pondering the strangeness of death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team