In the churchyard, two gravediggers shovel out a grave for Ophelia. They argue whether Ophelia should be buried in the churchyard, since her death looks like a suicide. According to religious doctrine, suicides may not receive Christian burial. The first gravedigger, who speaks cleverly and mischievously, asks the second gravedigger a riddle: “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” (V.i.46–47). The second gravedigger answers that it must be the gallows-maker, for his frame outlasts a thousand tenants. The first gravedigger corrects him, saying that it is the gravedigger, for his “houses” will last until Doomsday.
Hamlet and Horatio enter at a distance and watch the gravediggers work. Hamlet looks with wonder at the skulls they excavate to make room for the fresh grave and speculates darkly about what occupations the owners of these skulls served in life: “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now . . . ?” (V.i.90–91). Hamlet asks the gravedigger whose grave he digs, and the gravedigger spars with him verbally, first claiming that the grave is his own, since he is digging it, then that the grave belongs to no man and no woman, because men and women are living things and the occupant of the grave will be dead. At last he admits that it belongs to one “that was a woman sir; but, rest her soul, she’s dead” (V.i.146). The gravedigger, who does not recognize Hamlet as the prince, tells him that he has been a gravedigger since King Hamlet defeated the elder Fortinbras in battle, the very day on which young Prince Hamlet was born. Hamlet picks up a skull, and the gravedigger tells him that the skull belonged to Yorick, King Hamlet’s jester. Hamlet tells Horatio that as a child he knew Yorick and is appalled at the sight of the skull. He realizes forcefully that all men will eventually become dust, even great men like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Hamlet imagines that Julius Caesar has disintegrated and is now part of the dust used to patch up a wall.
Suddenly, the funeral procession for Ophelia enters the churchyard, including Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and many mourning courtiers. Hamlet, wondering who has died, notices that the funeral rites seem “maimed,” indicating that the dead man or woman took his or her own life (V.i.242). He and Horatio hide as the procession approaches the grave. As Ophelia is laid in the earth, Hamlet realizes it is she who has died. At the same moment, Laertes becomes infuriated with the priest, who says that to give Ophelia a proper Christian burial would profane the dead. Laertes leaps into Ophelia’s grave to hold her once again in his arms. Grief-stricken and outraged, Hamlet bursts upon the company, declaring in agonized fury his own love for Ophelia. He leaps into the grave and fights with Laertes, saying that “forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / make up my sum” (V.i.254–256). Hamlet cries that he would do things for Ophelia that Laertes could not dream of—he would eat a crocodile for her, he would be buried alive with her. The combatants are pulled apart by the funeral company. Gertrude and Claudius declare that Hamlet is mad. Hamlet storms off, and Horatio follows. The king urges Laertes to be patient, and to remember their plan for revenge.
The gravediggers are designated as “clowns” in the stage directions and prompts, and it is important to note that in Shakespeare’s time the word clown referred to a rustic or peasant, and did not mean that the person in question was funny or wore a costume.
The gravediggers represent a humorous type commonly found in Shakespeare’s plays: the clever commoner who gets the better of his social superior through wit. At the Globe Theater, this type of character may have particularly appealed to the “groundlings,” the members of the audience who could not afford seats and thus stood on the ground. Though they are usually figures of merriment, in this scene the gravediggers assume a rather macabre tone, since their jests and jibes are all made in a cemetery, among bones of the dead. Their conversation about Ophelia, however, furthers an important theme in the play: the question of the moral legitimacy of suicide under theological law. By giving this serious subject a darkly comic interpretation, Shakespeare essentially makes a grotesque parody of Hamlet’s earlier “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (III.i), indicating the collapse of every lasting value in the play into uncertainty and absurdity.
Hamlet’s confrontation with death, manifested primarily in his discovery of Yorick’s skull, is, like Ophelia’s drowning, an enduring image from the play. However, his solemn theorizing explodes in grief and rage when he sees Ophelia’s funeral procession, and his assault on Laertes offers a glimpse of what his true feelings for Ophelia might once have been. Laertes’ passionate embrace of the dead Ophelia again advances the subtle motif of incest that hangs over their brother-sister relationship. Interestingly, Hamlet never expresses a sense of guilt over Ophelia’s death, which he indirectly caused through his murder of Polonius. In fact, the only time he even comes close to taking responsibility for Polonius’s death at all comes in the next and last scene, when he apologizes to Laertes before the duel, blaming his “madness” for Polonius’s death. This seems wholly inadequate, given that Hamlet has previously claimed repeatedly only to be feigning madness. But by the same token, to expect moral completeness from a character as troubled as Hamlet might be unrealistic. After all, Hamlet’s defining characteristics are his pain, his fear, and his self-conflict. Were he to take full responsibility for the consequences of Polonius’s death, he would probably not be able to withstand the psychological torment of the resulting guilt.
A notable minor motif that is developed in this scene is Hamlet’s obsession with the physicality of death. Though many of his thoughts about death concern the spiritual consequences of dying—for instance, torment in the afterlife—he is nearly as fascinated by the physical decomposition of the body. This is nowhere more evident than in his preoccupation with Yorick’s skull, when he envisions physical features such as lips and skin that have decomposed from the bone. Recall that Hamlet previously commented to Claudius that Polonius’s body was at supper, because it was being eaten by worms (IV.iii). He is also fascinated by the equalizing effect of death and decomposition: great men and beggars both end as dust. In this scene, he imagines dust from the decomposed corpse of Julius Caesar being used to patch a wall; earlier, in Act IV, he noted, “A man may fish with the worm that have eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” a metaphor by which he illustrates “how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (IV.iii.26–31).