A gravedigger and a laborer enter and begin digging Ophelia’s grave. They discuss whether or not it is proper that Ophelia is getting a Christian burial given that she appears to have taken her own life (according to religious doctrine, those who commit suicide may not be afforded Christian burials). The laborer remarks that it’s a pity that the rich and powerful are forgiven for killing themselves, while their fellow Christians are not. The two men joke with one another as Hamlet and Horatio watch from a distance.
Observing the gravedigger carelessly tossing skulls aside, Hamlet wonders who these skeletons were in life. Hamlet approaches the gravedigger and asks whose grave he is digging. The gravedigger engages in wordplay with Hamlet, first telling him that, as he is the one digging it, the grave is his own. He then says that the grave belongs to neither a man nor a woman, as men and women are living, and the grave is for a member of the dead. The gravedigger, who does not recognize Hamlet, says that he has been working since Old Hamlet killed King Fortinbras thirty years ago—incidentally, the same day that Prince Hamlet was born. Hamlet asks how long dead bodies take to rot, and the gravedigger points out a nearby skull that is twenty-three years old, belonging to Yorick, the former king’s court jester. Recalling fond childhood memories of playing with Yorick, Hamlet is dismayed by the sight of his skull. This disturbing image prompts Hamlet to realize that all men must eventually die and turn to dust, and he speculates that even famous men such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar may have ended up as clay used to plug up a barrel of beer or fill in a hole in a wall.
Just then, the queen and king enter, followed by a priest, Laertes, and Ophelia’s coffin. Hamlet and Horatio hide to watch the procession. Observing the “maimed” funeral rites, Hamlet tells Horatio that the high-ranking person in the coffin must have committed suicide. Laertes urges the priest to perform the complete burial ceremonies (which would include the singing of a funeral dirge) and is angered when the priest claims that he has already bent the rules for Ophelia’s burial and refuses to “profane the service of the dead” further by giving full funeral rites to someone who has killed themselves. Overhearing this exchange, Hamlet is shocked when he finally realizes that the person being buried is Ophelia. Full of anger and grief, Laertes jumps into Ophelia’s grave and tells those assembled to bury him with his beloved sister. Enraged by Laertes’s ostentatious show of grief, Hamlet comes out of hiding and, after briefly scuffling with Laertes, declares that he loved Ophelia more than “forty thousand brothers” ever could. The two young men are forcibly separated, and the king and queen urge Laertes to ignore Hamlet’s mad ravings about the things he would do for Ophelia, such as drink vinegar or eat a crocodile. Claudius asks Laertes to be patient, urging him to remember their plan for revenge.
The two peasants’ irreverent approach to death sharply contrasts with Hamlet’s serious and philosophical reflection on the subject. It is through the gravedigger and the laborer that we learn that Ophelia’s death can be—and likely has been—interpreted by the rest of the court as a suicide rather than an accident. Hamlet imagines a nearby skull to be the skull of a lawyer, wondering, “Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” In other words, Hamlet is dismayed by the...
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thought that in death, the qualities that make one unique are lost. Hamlet expands upon this idea when he sees the skull of someone he truly did know: Yorick, the late court jester (“Where be your gibes / now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment"). Perhaps overcome by the physical evidence of death that surrounds him, Hamlet is crippled by the realization that even the most noble and great men end up as nothing more than dust: “may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he / find it stopping a bung-hole?” This scene's focus on the somber reality of death sets the stage for the series of deaths that will occur in the final scene of the play.
Hamlet’s reaction to the news that Ophelia is dead brings up several questions. Though Hamlet earlier acted disgusted with Ophelia—and, indeed, with all women—he appears to be filled with genuine grief at the news of her passing, suggesting that perhaps he really did love her. However, the poignancy of Hamlet’s feelings is somewhat overshadowed by his actions in this scene as he rudely interrupts Ophelia’s funeral and fights with Laertes over who is more grieved by her death: “Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum.” While Hamlet’s sorrow may certainly be real, he demonstrates hypocrisy in criticizing Laertes’s ostentatious show of sadness right before making a scene himself.
For his part, Laertes is obviously distraught over Ophelia’s death, declaring that she will be a “minist’ring angel” compared to the priest who refuses to give her full burial rites. Some scholars believe that Laertes’s relationship with Ophelia has incestual undertones, in large part due to his frequent references to her virginity and his extreme reaction to her death. Hamlet and Laertes’s oddly competitive argument over Ophelia’s coffin seems to lend credence to that interpretation. Hamlet never seems to consider his own role in Ophelia’s demise, making his behavior at her grave appear all the more insensitive. Ultimately, Hamlet’s outburst in this scene highlights his tendencies toward egocentricity and arrogance. By simultaneously making Ophelia’s funeral about himself and discounting the legitimacy of others’ grief altogether, Hamlet leaves the audience with little sympathy for him.