Act Five, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: On his way back to court, Hamlet meets two gravediggers. When Ophelia’s funeral procession arrives, Hamlet hides, before suddenly revealing himself, exposing himself to Laertes’ fury. Claudius announces that the two should duel, but (unbeknownst to Hamlet) arranges for the tip of Laertes sword to be poisoned. He also, in case that doesn’t work (he’s thorough if nothing else), prepared a back-up plan by poisoning Hamlet’s wine. The duel begins: Laertes wounds Hamlet but they exchange swords and Laertes is also cut. Events quickly spiral out of control as it becomes clear that Gertrude has unknowingly sipped from Hamlet’s cup and has been poisoned. The dying Laertes blames everything on Claudius and reveals their plan. Hamlet finally stabs his uncle before he himself collapses. The bloody and gory scene closes as the invading army of Fortinbras, who has arrived to restore rightful rule to Denmark, enters. He arranges for Hamlet to have a full military funeral.
(Of course that’s just the basic plot outline – what really happens will dig into as we continue.)
I’d like to say though, that it seems fitting that as Act Five opens, Hamlet has taken his thoughts on the human condition to the grave itself – seemingly a literal as well as a symbolic destination of the play. Freed from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by a hair’s-breadth escape involving pirates(!) on the high seas (why no matter how times I’ve read the play do I keep forgetting there’s pirates?), Hamlet returns to Denmark (why?) and finds himself, along with the ever loyal Horatio, in a churchyard. There he comes across a man who has the expertise to answer his inquisitiveness about bodies, one of the gravediggers. (It might be fitting to note that it is only now in Act Five, with a changed Hamlet, does Shakespeare introduce a fool/clown, since prior to this he had Hamlet to play that role.) Their discussion becomes a fascinatingly grim comic back and forth (apt, since the gravedigger is actually called “Clown” in the text):
Hamlet: How long will a man lie I’th’ earth ere he rot?
First Clown: I’faith, if a be not rotten before a die – as we have many pocky corpses nowadays, that will scare hold the laying in – a will last you some eight year or nine yar. A tanner will last you nine year.
Hamlet: Why he more than another?
First Clown: Why, sir, his hide is so tanned wit his trade that a will keep out water a great while…
I’ve read that certain neoclassical thinkers – Voltaire for example – objected to this scene on the grounds that it debased Hamlet’s tragedy. But it seems to me that what is particularly striking her is that the Prince’s black comedy routine echoes with hearty vulgarity some of the grander ideas we’ve already come across in the play. “To what base uses we may return, Horatio!’ Hamlet exclaims (5.1.198) – and when it comes down to it we end up in the grave, and, as he gleefully and most memorably explained to Claudius earlier in the play, ‘a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar’ after he rots and is eaten by worms. But the laughter, bleak (and as needed) as it is, is short-lived: the grave at which Hamlet and Horatio are conversing is the one meant for Ophelia. With this news, the tone of the play begins to…narrow: death is no longer just a subject for Hamlet’s speculative enquiries, but a truly savage reality. And though Polonius’s end was messy and squalid – Hamlet stabs him behind the curtain thinking it’s a “rat,” and then unceremoniously lugs the body off stage afterward – it is here, I think, that we sense that even the fate of “intruding fools” like him (or clowns like Hamlet’s long-dead jester Yorick) has a tragic dimension.
From Marjorie Garber:
“Of all the changes in Hamlet as a dramatic character, though, the most striking is the change in his conception of his own role. From the beginning of the play he has lamented the fact that he is not like other people he admires, and to whom he insistently compares himself. He is not like his father, or Horatio, or Laertes, or Fortinbras – or so he thinks. Two of the four best-known soliloquies take this apparent dissimilarity as their starting-off point. In the ‘rogue and peasant slave’ speech Hamlet compared himself unfavorably to the First Player, who can show strong emotion even in a fictional context, and in ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ he contrasts his slowness in martial revenge against the rapidity and bravery of Fortinbras, the ‘delicate and tender prince’ who leads his troops on a mission of honor, where they ‘[g]o to their graves like beds’ and ‘fight for a plot/…Which is not tomb enough and continent/To hide the slain.’ Yet Hamlet is very like both the First Player and Fortinbras, and the progress of the play can be measured in part by the progress of his self-recognition in the models he has heretofore seen as indices of his own failure. In using his father’s signet ring, as we have seen, he emblematically becomes both King and ‘Hamlet the Dane.’ By the play’s last scene he is willing to see correspondences he has long ignored (but which have been evident to the audience):
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his…
And Fortinbras the soldier, whose name means ‘strong-arm,’ ordains for Hamlet, as is mot fitting, a soldier’s burial.
Hamlet’s education in the mutability of roles began with the players, and the First Player’s tears, but ends in the graveyard, with the lesson that all human lives are roles, briefly played. The politician, the courtier, the lawyer, the great buyer of land – ‘That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once.’ The skull of Yorick, the court jester during Hamlet’s childhood, is in a way the antitype of the Ghost, material rather than spiritual. But it is also a memento mori, a reminder of death, and thus, like the Ghost, another invitation to ‘remember.’ The anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who in 1543 (more than half a century before Hamlet) published his great work De humani corporis fabrica, the first complete textbook of human anatomy, included among his illustrations one of a human skeleton deep in contemplation of a skull. This, we might say, is Hamlet avant la letter, an uncanny anticipation of Shakespeare’s play. Skulls were common ornaments in the period, yet the skull of Yorick has a particular local habitation and a name. Hamlet’s antic disposition may mirror itself on this first mentor and companion, another surrogate father, now ‘quite chap-fallen.’ The graveyard strips human beings to the bare bone, and in this cosmic perspective all roles are equal – ‘let her paint an inch thick, and so this favour she must come.’ After all the wordiness of others in the play, from Polonius to the foppish courtier Osric to the ruminative Hamlet himself, the gravedigger strips language, like lives, to bare and literal essentials. He does not use metaphor, and he does not respond to it. ‘Upon what ground?’ asks Hamlet, looking for a reason or an explanation, and the reply he receives is, ‘Why, here in Denmark.’
The gravedigger is a literalist, and like so many other clowns in Shakespeare he speaks home truths, even in the apparent guise of malapropism or misunderstanding. ‘How absolute the knave is!’ says Hamlet, with some admiration, to Horatio. ‘We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.’ But metaphor is a necessary role for language, and language, as we have seen again and again in these plays, is for Shakespeare the touchstone and index of humanity. So Hamlet, although instructed in the graveyard, will leave it again for the world of roles, for a final choice of identity. ‘This is I,/Hamlet the Dane,’ he cries, as – in the Folio’s stage direction – he [l]eaps in the grave’ of the dead Ophelia, and then grapples with Laertes for his right to mourn. The image of the two men wrestling in an open grave is itself a stunning and effective visual emblem, while the phrase ‘Hamlet the Dane’ brings together the private and the public, the man and the nation, Hamlet reclaiming as his own the name and the titles with which the bereaved son, much earlier, greeted the ghost of his father: ‘I’ll call thee Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane.’”