Scene 5.1 - Outside, Near the Castle in Elsinore
The fifth act begins the following day with two clowns serving as gravediggers. They are debating how the corpse they have before them is to be buried, for the method of death - in this case, drowning (quite possibly self-inflicted) - is the deciding factor. Those who committed suicide were traditionally not afforded a "Christian" burial, meaning that the final resting ground was not sanctified and no prayers were to be offered. It soon becomes clear that the body in question is Ophelia's. Though there seems to be little doubt the death was more suicide than accident, one clown reports that the coroner has decided she will be permitted a Christian burial - but only because of her prominence in the royal court, having been daughter to Polonius and the betrothed of Hamlet. The clowns joke around and sing much of the time they are digging, and it is in such a light-hearted atmosphere that Hamlet and Horatio enter. One clown exits while the other proceeds to dig up numerous skulls, all the while heartily singing.
Hamlet, prompted to deep thoughts on seeing the skulls, speculates about the past professions - politician, courtier, lawyer - of these deceased people. Hamlet also jokes with Horatio and talks at great length, but his is a palpably nervous kind of laughter and speech, no doubt aimed at avoiding too much contemplation of death and eternity. We learn that the clown has been a gravedigger for some thirty years, ever since the day the former King (Hamlet Senior) defeated Fortinbras - a day any and all remember, the clown informs us, for that same day the young Hamlet was born. This is the best clue the play offers in respect to Hamlet's age, although one can certainly question the accuracy of the clown's memory. The clown doesn't know he is presently speaking with Hamlet, and thus he goes on to report how the "mad" Hamlet was recently sent to England to "recover his wits" there. Hamlet and the clown discuss how long corpses last before rotting away, and then they stumble upon the skull of someone they both knew: Yorick, the former King's jester. Overcome with nostalgia, Hamlet recalls his days as a young boy when he would ride on Yorick's back, but his nostalgia soon turns to disgust at the smell of the skull. "To what base uses we may return, Horatio!" Hamlet memorably remarks to his friend.
Meanwhile the King, Queen, Laertes and their entourage enter, along with a priest and coffin. Laertes - twice demanding "What ceremony else?" - is offended by what he feels is an insufficiently elaborate funeral for his sister. With priggish and pompous language, Laertes leaps into the grave to say a final farewell to his dear Ophelia. Hamlet, as yet undetected, becomes outraged at Laertes' words and advances toward him. The two scuffle but are separated almost immediately. Hamlet finds fault with Laertes' display of love for Ophelia, stating that his own love for and devotion to Ophelia far exceeded that of Laertes. This is quite difficult to swallow, of course, given Hamlet's harsh rejection of her in Act 3, Scene 1 when he ranted, "Get thee to a nunnery!" Hamlet departs, with Horatio trailing behind him at the King's request. The scene closes as Claudius cautions Laertes to be patient, for shortly they will be able to put into action the previous night's plan.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7