What is the importance of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet?

Quick answer:

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 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


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

What does the gravedigger scene reveal about Hamlet?

All true.  This particular scene in Hamlet is one of the most introspective scenes in the play outside of the soliloquies, it seems to me.  Because these "clowns" don't know who he is, he is able to speak without pretense, which he does through much of the rest of the play--so much so that we're not alwayssure when he's serious and when he's putting on his "antic disposition."  When he talks to them, Hamlet is funny and witty, enjoying wordplay as we know he does throughout.  When he and Horatio are watching one of the gravediggers uncover the skull of what turns out to be Yorrick, Hamlet it pensive.  He reflects, as he does many times in the play, on the concept of death; however, he does so here in a much more somber and final way--a clear foreshadowing of his impending death. 

His observation is that everyone is equal at death--Alexander the Great and Caesar are just as dead as his former friend, the jester Yorrick. All of them--and all of us--end up in the same place, mingling with the dust:  "To what base uses we may return."  It's true Hamlet has reflected on his own death before; this time, we see he is reflecting on the universality and reality of death.

Finally, we see a grief-stricken Hamlet who does not appear to be acting.  He is struck, as has been mentioned, by his culpability for Ophelia's death; and his reaction to seeing her corpse speaks of genuine loss and love.  It's here we have our suspicions confirmed, it seems to me:  Hamlet did, indeed, love Ophelia. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the gravedigger scene reveal about Hamlet?

This scene goes through a couple of different "phases" for lack of a better word.  At the start of the scene, Hamlet and Horatio are merely observers of the gravediggers actions, and Hamlet is contemplating death from a kind of outsider's perspective and realizing that death comes to everyone and that death is a great equalizer -- ashes to ashes -- no matter who you were in life, whether a common man or Alexander the Great.  Once he approaches the grave diggers, two things happen.  First we see his wit when he and the gravedigger are joking about whose grave it is, then we see a complete reversal.  When he is told he is holding Yorick's skull, Hamlet become somber at the reality of death -- he is intimately involved with the dead body of someone he knew and he was close too.  The jokes are over, and death is VERY real to him.  It becomes too real when he see Ophelia's funeral procession enter the graveyard.  Now, the dead body is of the woman he loved.  He goes a bit crazy in his declaration of that love, but it kind of makes sense in light of the realizations of death he has just worked through for himself.  Hamlet has been contemplating death throughout the entire play, and it is after this scene that he is truly able to let all the thinking go, and give himself over to action.  He even tells Horatio, "The readiness is all" before he goes to the duel that will ultmately end his life.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the gravedigger scene reveal about Hamlet?

The gravediggers scene in Act V.i of Hamlet reveals the following about the Prince:

  • it foreshadows his death.  This final act begins with death and will end with every major character dead by its end.
  • reveals his tragic-comedic fixation with death.  The gravediggers show the dark humor connected with death.  Hamlet finds the jester's skull, a comedian's death-relic (more black humor).  Hamlet begins to see death as absurdity.
  • reveals Hamlet's culpability in Ophelia's suicide.  Yes, they've decided to give her a Christian burial, but her drowning was no accident.  Hamlet, among other men, drove her to madness and death by, ironically, pretending to be mad.
  • sets the scene for the fight in the grave between Laertes and Hamlet.  This fight will soon be repeated in the duel.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the importance of death in Hamlet and the graveyard scene?

First, we see that even in death there are lies. Ophelia did not die in a "Christian" manner. She cut her own life short, but because of her status she is allowed a Christian burial. The gravedigger says it best when he says,

Why, there thou sayst. And the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian.

Only the gravediggers, however, acknowledge this discrepancy. Hamlet and Laertes argue over who loves her more and even go as far as to wrestle with each other over her grave.

Next, we see the flippancy with which death is treated. Shakespeare used his gravedigger character for comic relief and in doing so also pointed out the irreverence with which death was treated. Hamlet points out this behavior when he talks about how the gravedigger is treating the skulls saying,

That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o'erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

Hamlet also says that only the rich are able to afford to be sensitive about death. He points out the irony that these once powerful people are now merely skulls rotting in the graveyard to be battered and broken, the objects of crude jokes by the gravediggers.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the importance of death in Hamlet and the graveyard scene?

Death is the final irony to all the machinations of the Danish court, for it is the only solution to correcting the problem of what is "rotten in Denmark."  The final act is an ending worthy of one of the great mafia families as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, "takes care of all family business."  And, he leaves his country in the care of the noble Fortinbras.

The graveyard scene, while providing some comic relief, also presages the death of the court as the gravediggers make gruesome jokes about the brevity of life while they continue to mention how man is mortal, no matter how noble, returning to the dust from which he came.

In an ironic twist, dying becomes the most noble deed that Claudius, Polonius, and the other corrupt courtiers enact.  So, Hamlet, in the words of Ernest Johnson,

disentangles himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passions, and to do what he must do for the pure sake of justice....from that dilemma of wrong feelings and right actions, he ultimately emerges, solving the problem by attaining the proper state of mind.

In his struggle to act morally within such a corrupt world while maintaining his integrity, Hamlet is a "man for all seasons" and dies redeemed, rather than condemned.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the importance of death in Hamlet and the graveyard scene?

Death.  It's enough to drive a prince crazy.

In Act V, scene i of Hamlet, after the suicide of Ophelia and before the bloodbath in the final scene, Shakespeare uses the comic relief of the gravediggers to layer his penultimate scene with gothic imagery, morbid jokes, and black humor.

Enotes says it best:

Death, decay, and the futility of life fill the spoken thoughts the Danish prince, and the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's tortured ghost leaves us with cold comfort about the afterlife. Shakespeare skillfully shows vitality being cut short and leading to a gruesome end. Thus, in the graveyard scene that opens Act V, Hamlet holds up the skull of a court jester he knew as a boy, and utters the lines,

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; and now,
how abhorred in my imagination it is!

Not only is death pervasive, its occurrence is a product of chance and circumstance. True, Hamlet anticipates his death, while Claudius and, perhaps, Laertes deserve theirs, but Polonius dies by accident as does the Queen, while Ophelia's suicide seems to be beyond her control. Life inevitably yields death and a wormy grave, and its occurrence cannot be foreseen or avoided.

The play begins and ends with death.  Hamlet is visited by his dead father in Act I, and here in Act V he visits two dead friends, Yorick and Ophelia.  All of their deaths were off-stage as we prepare for the on-stage deaths of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes.  By the end, the entire cast is laid to rest.  This is the realization that Hamlet must accept: the inevitability of death, "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns."

Hamlet is prepared for death prior to this scene.  He tells Horatio:

If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

Only until Hamlet is ready to die will he be able to fulfill his duty as heroic avenger.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the grave diggers scene in Hamlet?

In the gravedigger scene, Hamlet returns home and changes.  This scene is where the madness leaves Hamlet and he embraces the seriousness of the situation. First, we have the symbolism and foreshadowing of death (the skulls, the graves, the funeral).  Then we have Hamlet coming to realize the love of his life is being lowered into the ground, and he has to take responsibility--in his own mind he knows he may have had a great deal to do with this.  He shows his love for her by his actions at her graveside.  The symbolism of life moving on, the past becoming the present, is represented by the fact that Yorick's grave is being dug up to make room for Ophelia.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on