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The Last Mystery

(Shakespearean Criticism)

William Kerrigan, University of Massachusetts

As I finished this book, I was visited by a friend of pragmatic temperament. "Yes, I suppose so," he said on hearing of my admiration for the scene between Hamlet and the gravedigger. "But I don't have the slightest idea what it means." What defeats my pragmatic friend, I think, is that the graveyard scene offers nothing but meaning. With respect to the battle between Hamlet and Claudius, it accomplishes nothing. Hamlet does not form a plan. He does not happen on useful information. Shakespeare, grandly at his leisure, finds time to bring Hamlet and Horatio, eventually the entire Danish court and the mortal remains of Ophelia, to the local graveyard—only the second scene in the play (the first is 4.2, its local unspecified) set outside Elsinore Castle. Two months or so before the play begins, Hamlet returned from Wittenberg to attend his father's funeral, which might have been held on this very ground.1 "Foul deeds will rise,/ Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes" (1.3.257-58). Hamlet is thinking of his father rising from the earth of his grave; when he first sees the ghost, he refers to it as a "dead corse" (I.4.52). Shakespeare reassembles his characters on the graveyard from which the foul deeds rose. It is where they are destined to go, and will go again when their dead bodies are heaped on a stage at the end of the play. The graveyard comes before the beginning, before the end, after the end. This scene does not advance the plot but stretches it out from dust to dust.

When I remarked in [an earlier chapter] that 3.4 was the greatest scene in Hamlet, I may have been rash. Planted in the design of the graveyard scene are specific messages for the prince, delivered one after another like tolling bells that summon to his remembrance things past, from his birth to his current embroilments. Like the closet scene, the graveyard scene stamps seals of fated specificity on Hamlet's life. But here the horizons are the largest imaginable. The scene casts the life of the hero, all the lives of all the characters, tragedy itself, in the broadest and most reductive perspective. It completes the ideal-making self-education of the prince, countering the wish that opens his first soliloquy with hard fact: instead of melting, thawing, and resolving into a dew, his flesh, all flesh, will leak into the waters, dusts, and dirts of mother earth. Here as elsewhere, the Shakespearean drama of splitting requires concepts that level and plot devices that reunite, such as the bed-tricks of All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. The graveyard scene in Hamlet, into which all its characters and motives and themes are funneled, envelops the play in a powerful spirit of counter-splitting. "For this whole world," as Donne observes, "is but an universall church-yard, but our common grave" (Sermons 10:234).

The peculiar structure of the revenge plot, in which a determining crime has taken place before the opening of the play, makes Hamlet itself seem like the conclusion of a tragedy already under way. In another structuring of the plot, closer to what we find in The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet might be a character who appears in Act 4 of The Hystorie of Claudius to set the catastrophe in motion. He might appear even later in The Tragicall Hystorie of King Hamblet and Queene Gertrude. (Running parallel to Hamlet is a chronicle history, Fortinbras of Norway, in which the prince does not have a line.) Another way to describe this sense of a tragedy caught up in previous tragedies is "being under a curse." Claudius observes that his rank offense "hath the primal eldest curse upon't—/ A brother's murder" (3.3.36-37). Cain is the first murderer, Abel the first corpse. Trying to wean Hamlet of excessive grief, Claudius takes him back to that very body:

To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried
From the first corse till he that died today,
"This must be so."

(The entire section is 9,413 words.)