In this scene, Hamlet sees himself through the eyes of the commoners. The gravediggers have no idea who Hamlet is when their paths cross, and Hamlet learns that his acts of insanity are widely discussed at this point. The gravedigger tells him that Hamlet "is mad / and sent into...
In this scene, Hamlet sees himself through the eyes of the commoners. The gravediggers have no idea who Hamlet is when their paths cross, and Hamlet learns that his acts of insanity are widely discussed at this point. The gravedigger tells him that Hamlet "is mad / and sent into England" (5.1.148–149). It seems that Hamlet is a source of common town gossip, and everyone knows that the king sent him to England, meaning Claudius himself has disseminated this information.
This scene is also a breather for an audience who has been on the edge of their collective seats for a while. Just prior to this, Claudius has been conspiring with Laertes about murdering Hamlet, and Gertrude has announced Ophelia's death. In the next scene, the stage will be littered with bodies, so the humor here provides a bit of down time before the action (and deaths) resume. Hamlet and the gravedigger play around with syntax until Hamlet finally declares, "How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, / or equivocation will undo us" (5.1.137-138). Hamlet seems to enjoy this friendly banter, and we see him relaxing ever so slightly as he jests with this commoner.
Finally, Hamlet is forced to realize the fate that meets all men, even those who jest and manipulate syntax for comedic effect, when the gravedigger tells him that a skull Hamlet holds is the former jester, Yorick. It seems unlikely that in a cemetery littered with bones, the gravediggers would be able to ascertain the identity of any one random skull, but for Hamlet, the identification of this particular skull as his former companion strikes a somber chord. Hamlet remembers all the joy Yorick brought him when he was alive, and now he has been reduced to a pile of bones. Hamlet is compelled to recognize that life is fleeting and that eventually, Yorick's fate will be his, the gravedigger's, Horatio's, and every other man's. Just after this realization, Hamlet learns that the grave being dug is for Ophelia, whose life has now been reduced to dust as well.