The passage takes place in Act 5 Scene 1 of Hamlet written by William Shakespeare. The portion of the scene takes place inside a graveyard, in the middle of the night. The characters present are Hamlet, his friend and advisor Horatio, and a gravedigger, identified as the Clown. Hamlet and Horatio are watching a gravedigger empty a grave of its bodies, most likely to replace it with another body.
Hamlet reflects on what the lives of these dead souls were like, and how disgraceful it is for the gravedigger to treat people like this. Eventually, he is completely jarred by the Clown’s insensitivity and disrespect towards death, and he confronts him. The two engage in witty, morbid banter. When Hamlet is informed late in the scene that one of the skulls belonged to the beloved court jester, Yorick, he breaks down, and reflects on death and its affect on himself. His experiences with death have not been positive, for example, with the passing of his father. The passage is structured as a dialogue, first between Horatio and Hamlet, and then between Hamlet and the Clown. Occasionally, Hamlet lapses into a monologue-like passage, in that he rants and raves while Horatio and the Clown listen.
The mood and atmosphere of the passage is dark and morbid. Since the scene takes place in a graveyard, the doom and gloom of the passage is really emphasized. Skulls are being tossed around by the Clown, and when they are not being tossed around, death is being discussed at length. The song sung by the Clown sets the mood from the get go. “But age, with his stealing steps, hath claw’d me in his clutch.” (10-11) The song is about death creeping up on humans, which is discussed further in the scene.
Imagery is a key device used frequently throughout the passage. It is generally morbid, disturbing and quite graphic in nature. Descriptions of skulls, dead bodies, and weapons to name a few are seen repeatedly through the passage. “I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die-as we have many pocky corses now-a-days…” (103-04) The clown is quite crudely describing corpses that were arriving at the cemetery. The morbid imagery pictured in the mind of the reader is commonplace for the Clown, who as Horatio so succinctly said, “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.” (6)
It reveals the Clown’s insensitivity, as well as how accustomed he is to death. In general, just imagining a man throwing skulls out of graving, while singing, is quite disturbing. However, these morose images and descriptions are contrasted by Hamlet’s loving description of the deceased court jester, Yorick. “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.” (123-24) Through this line, we see a softer, more loving side of Hamlet, as well as a rare peek at what his life must have been like before the demise of his father and his own breakdown into insanity.
The use of irony is also used to further develop the Hamlet and the Clown’s characters. In general, the throwing of the skulls, though morbid, is foreshadowing the events to come in the next scene, with the demise of the entire royal family. The gravedigger almost seems to be more powerful, though lower in stature, than Hamlet, as he controls the rites of the body, and how long they get to stay in the graveyard. As well, the banter between Hamlet and the Clown had undertones of dark humour. From lines 60 to 75, the counter back and forth, questioning whose grave the Clown was standing in.
The Clown said it was his; “You lie out on’t sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I do not lie in’t, and yet it is mine.” (62-63) After some time, Hamlet himself gets fed up with the wittiness of the Clown; he is not used to be countered in this way, as because of his stature, he generally is never talked to in such a way. Hamlet states, “We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us,” (77-78) which is ironic because he himself equivocates quite frequently, like Polonius and other courtiers. Again, another instance of irony is when Hamlet again masks his identity. He carries on a conversation with the Clown about himself and his whereabouts. Though the Clown appears to believe he is well informed in regards to the Prince, he does not realize he is talking to him. He humorously states that Hamlet recovering his wits in England does not matter; “there the men are as mad as he.” (94-95)
Diction is a major contributor to the revealing of character and plot. At the beginning of the passage when the Clown is singing about death, it reveals his insensitivity and disrespect to not only his surroundings, but also to the individuals there. His crassness shows how accustomed he is to such morbidity. The Clown is lower class, which can be determined by his language. He speaks in prose throughout the passage, using contractions and vulgar diction throughout. He uses words such as “in’t”, “’tis”, and “’twill”, further emphasizing the class difference between Hamlet and the Clown.
The Clown uses language in a very crafty manner, tying in with the irony of the passage, as well as the dark, moody tone. This is seen in his quick exchange with Hamlet. Here, Hamlet asks questions (albeit about himself), and the Clown responds with a quick, succinct response. It is important to note that Hamlet also speaks in prose when conversing with the Clown. When observing the Clown’s manner of speaking, it is very direct and dry. Horatio’s lack of speaking roles emphasizes his role as a listener and observer. Horatio speaks very few lines, and the times he speaks are to Hamlet only, where he responds to what Hamlet says.
Antithesis is apparent throughout the piece, and is reflected through diction and imagery. There is contrast in diction and the way of communication between Hamlet and the Clown. The Clown speaks in a very succinct manner, and proves all of his points. He uses more slang terms as well as vulgar diction. Hamlet on the other hand, rants and raves, and talks around the issues he discusses.
However, he speaks in a more polite, socially acceptable manner. It reflects their characters, in that Hamlet’s social class and higher standards are revealed. The Clown’s vulgarity reflects his lower stature in society, as well as more freedom of words. In regards to imagery, there is a major contrast between the morbid imagery present at the beginning of the passage, in comparison to the imagery seen at the end, when Hamlet is describing the court jester. From talk of “pocky corses” (104) to “a fellow of infinite jest” (123), the progression to a more pure and loving side of Hamlet is revealed.
There are many staging opportunities available with this scene, because of the flexibility and vagueness of the stage directions. The throwing of the skulls, as well as the positioning of the actors can be put in to question. The depth of the grave the Clown is standing in would make a big impact. As well, if Horatio and Hamlet are standing directly over the grave, and therefore directly over the Clown, it displays their higher status, as if they are talking down to him. Hamlet, progressively bending closer and closer to the ground could symbolize him equalling himself to the Clown, as well as progressively getting closer to death, and his own grave. When Hamlet is holding the skull of the jester, the actor perhaps, could be holding it gently, to symbolize his love for the deceased Yorick.
In conclusion, this passage from Act 5 Scene 1 is the last scene of comedy in the play. Hamlet’s character is revealed more, as we see his moral code in regards to respecting the dead. As well, the reader sees his softer side, and a glimpse of his old life through his descriptions of Yorick, the jester. Through mood, atmosphere, imagery, diction, antithesis and staging opportunities, the characters of Hamlet and the Clown are revealed.