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In act 5, scene 1, of Hamlet, the titular character has a memorable conversation with a gravedigger. Let us take a look at why the gravedigger and his conversation with Hamlet are significant.

The scene opens with two gravediggers digging a grave for Ophelia’s body and discussing whether or not she should be given a proper Christian burial, as she died from suicide. The gravediggers mimic lawyers and humorously argue both sides of the debate. They are akin to jesters and provide comic relief in an otherwise tragic play. Death, especially the death of a young person by suicide, is an emotionally heavy topic, which is why Shakespeare chooses this moment to inject a bit of levity and comic relief through the gravediggers. This is a tactic he employs often in his tragedies.

The conversation between Hamlet and the first gravedigger is significant because it is this conversation that allows Hamlet to accept his mortality. As he looks at Yorick’s skull, he realizes that all people, himself included, will die at some point. He acknowledges that death is an equalizer and eventually everyone, including the wealthy and the great, will all meet the same end.

A third function of this scene is dramatic effect. As Hamlet and the gravedigger converse, Hamlet is unaware that the grave is for Ophelia. This break in the story postpones Hamlet’s knowledge of Ophelia’s death, making it all the more dramatic and emotional when he does find out.

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