The Gravediggers (or Clowns) are examples of Shakespearean fools (also known as clowns or jesters), a recurring type of character in Shakespeare's plays. Like most Shakespearean fools, the Gravediggers are peasants or commoners that use their great wit and intellect to get the better of their superiors, other people of higher social status, and each other.
The Gravediggers appear briefly in Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, making their one and only appearance at the beginning of Act V, scene i. They are first encountered as they are digging a grave for the newly deceased Ophelia, discussing whether she deserves a Christian burial after having killed herself. Soon, Hamlet enters and engages in a quick dialogue with the first Gravedigger. The beat ends with Hamlet's speech regarding the circle of life prompted by his discovery of the skull of his father's beloved jester, Yorick.
The penultimate scene of the play begins with the two clowns digging a grave for the late Ophelia. They debate whether she should be allowed to have a Christian burial, because she committed suicide. This quickly leads them into a discussion of the impact of politics on the decision, and the two parody lawyer speech. They present Ophelia's case from both positions: if she jumped into the water, then she killed herself, but if the water effectively jumped on her, then she did not. The First Gravedigger laments the fact that the wealthy have more freedom to commit suicide than the poor.
The pair get off the subject of suicide almost as quickly as they began it, however, and soon begins the more witty section of their scene. The First Gravedigger begins to goad and test the Second, beginning by confusing him with the double meaning of the word "arms" (as in weapons and appendages). The dialogue between the two ends when the First Gravedigger is unsatisfied by the answer to the riddle "What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?" (V.i.39-40) that the Second Gravedigger gives, and consequently sends him off to bring back alcohol.
The Second Gravedigger exits as Hamlet and Horatio enter, and the First Gravedigger begins to sing a song on the topics of love and graves as he digs. He throws a skull (and later a second) up and out of the grave. Hamlet then talks to Horatio about how inappropriate it is to treat what used to be someone's, and possibly an important someone's, body in such a way. He decides to ask the Gravedigger whose grave he is digging, but the Gravedigger will not reveal the answer without another witty exchange.
Soon, it is revealed that the Gravedigger has been digging graves since the day Hamlet was born. The two then briefly discuss Hamlet's insanity (which they are able to do because the Gravedigger does not know Hamlet by sight). It is shortly thereafter that the Gravedigger points out a skull that used to belong to the Yorick, the king's jester and Hamlet's caretaker. Hamlet asks if this could really be so, and the Gravedigger responds with, "E'en that," (V.i.159), marking his last line in the play.
When together, the Gravediggers speak mainly in riddles and witty banter regarding death, with the first asking the questions and the second answering.
What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the
shipwright, or the carpenter?
The gallows-maker, for that frame outlives a thousand
tenants. (V.i., 38-41)
And later in the scene:
And when you are asked
this question next, say “A grave-maker.” The houses that
he makes last till doomsday. (V.i., 53-55)
While digging Ophelia's grave, the first Gravedigger sings to himself:
In youth when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet
To contract–o–the time, for–a–my behove,
Oh, methought, there–a–was nothing–a–meet. (V.i.57-58)
But age with his stealing steps
Hath clawed me in his clutch,
And hath shipped me into the land
As if I had never been such.
(throws up a skull) (V.i.63-64)
Analysis of the scene
Many major and important themes of the play are discussed and brought up by the Gravediggers in the short time they are on stage. The manner in which these themes are presented, however, is notably different from the rest of the play.
While the rest of the play is set solely in the fictional world of Hamlet's Denmark, this scene helps makes sense of the themes by simultaneously bringing the focus to the audience's world. "By using recognizable references from contemporary times, the clown can, through the use of the oral tradition, make the audience understand the theme being played out by the court-dominated characters in the play."
For example, although the First Gravedigger is definitely in the fictional world of the play (he is digging Ophelia's grave), he also asks his fellow to "go, get thee to Yaughan, fetch me a stoup of liquor". This does not appear in all versions and means little to us now, but it is "generally supposed that [Yaughan] was a nearby inn-keeper [to the theatre]". Likewise, the First Gravedigger is in the same world as the English audience of the time when he jokes "...[insanity] will not be seen in [Hamlet] there [in England]; there the men are as mad as he". This gives enough of a "distance from Elsinore [for the audience] to view what the clowns say as discreet parallels, not direct commentaries".
The literal graveness of the situation (the funeral) subsides to the humor. This makes it possible for the characters to look at the subject of death objectively, giving rise to such speeches as Hamlet's musings over the skull of Yorick.
The tone is set from the opening of the scene, during the Gravediggers' dialog regarding Ophelia. Simply, they use her death to debate whether suicide is legitimate and forgivable according to religious law. This is not the first time, however, that this question has been raised in the play. Hamlet has the very same discussion with himself during his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in Act 3 scene 1. The characters in Act 5 scene 1 approach the topic this time with dark comedy, and in doing so bring up an entirely different theme.
The parody of legal jargon used by the pair of clowns continues the theme of the corruption of politics, as seen in the usurpation of the throne by Claudius (which should have belonged to prince Hamlet) upon King Hamlet's death.
The disintegration of values, morals, and order is a theme discussed at length in "Hamlet". The everyday tone of the Gravediggers brings this philosophy into the focus of the audience's world. The synthesis of all perspectives used ends in a greater comprehension of the play as a whole.
Finally, it should be remembered that "Hamlet" was written to be performed at a time when religion was a very hot topic. But it was possible to critique the Reformation in England and discuss the legality of suicide as long as the characters have their own intention (i.e. to dig a grave) separate from the author's intention.
During the Interregnum, all theatres were closed down by the Puritan government. However, even during this time playlets known as drolls were often performed illegally, including one based on the two clowns, called The Grave-Makers, based on Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet.
In most of the movie adaptations of Hamlet, the part of the First Gravedigger (and at times the Second Gravedigger) is played by an extremely established actor or comedian. The following are the actors that portrayed the Gravedigger in the most notable cinematic productions:
- Jeffrey Wright in Hamlet (2000), directed by Michael Almereyda
- Billy Crystal in Hamlet (1996), directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Trevor Peacock in Hamlet (1990), directed by Franco Zeffirelli
- Roger Livesey in Hamlet (1969), directed by Tony Richardson
- Stanley Holloway in Hamlet (1948), directed by Laurence Olivier
- Lori M Culwell (14 December 2005). "The Role of the Clown in Shakespeare's Theatre". Sheffield Hallam University, Early Modern Literary Studies. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- Hamlet, Act V, Sc i, line 61
- The New Temple Shakespeare "Hamlet", J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1938, London. Notes, p.184
- Hamlet, Act V, Sc i, line 155
- Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. p. 324
- Hamlet 5.1
- Marsden (2002, 21)
- Holland (2007, 34)
- Holland, Peter. 2007. "Shakespeare Abbreviated". In Shaughnessy (2007, 26-45).
- Marsden, Jean I. 2002. "Improving Shakespeare: from the Restoration to Garrick". In Wells and Stanton (2002, 21–36).
- Shaughnessy, Robert. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture. Cambridge Companions to Literature ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-60580-9