Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

In a churchyard, a sexton and a gravedigger prepare a grave. As they go about their business, they are wrapped in their own discussions. Some of what they say is banter; some of what they say has cultural and religious aspects to it.

As one of the men ambles off for liquor, Hamlet and Horatio converge. They speak to the gravedigger, asking about his work, and he tells them he has been a gravedigger since King Hamlet defeated Fortinbras. When Hamlet asks how long that has been, the gravedigger notes that it's been 30 years, having taken place on the day that young Hamlet was born. As they talk, the gravedigger hands Hamlet a skull; it turns out to be the skull of the former king's jester, Yorick. Hamlet, examining the skull, is struck by the information; he tells Horatio that he had known Yorick well.

A procession appears. Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes lead, followed by a coffin and various other courtiers and attendants. By what people begin to say, it dawns on Hamlet that this is Ophelia's funeral. With Horatio beside him, he watches in disbelief.

Overcome by grief, Laertes jumps into Ophelia's grave, shouting to be buried with her. Hamlet, also overcome, reveals himself and jumps in after Laertes, also proclaiming his sorrow. The two fight, but Horatio and others in attendance separate them and pull them from the grave. Hamlet professes his love for Ophelia—as well as his admiration for Laertes—and runs off. Claudius sends Horatio after Hamlet and steadies Laertes's resolve, telling him his opportunity for revenge will be here soon.

Analysis

Act 5, Scene 1 is iconic. As the various plots and themes converge, the characters themselves also converge—all in the graveyard. That one of the final scenes is set in a graveyard is reminiscent of the play's opening scene with the ghost on the wall—both reflecting on the idea of man's mortality.

Here Hamlet is presented from two vantage points. Early on, with Horatio, he talks with gravediggers, one of whom hands him the skull of King Hamlet's former jester, Yorick. Yorick, as it happens, was a friend to Hamlet in childhood, and the moment releases all sorts of good memories for Hamlet. There, Hamlet is perhaps seen closest to his former self—before his father's death set him on a collision course with his uncle. He is warm, funny, thoughtful, and beloved, just as audiences have been told he was.

Hamlet is also shown as reacting rather than thinking, as he jumps into Ophelia's grave in a moment of unchecked action. He does not think it through; he does not examine the many ramifications. Like Fortinbras, he is in the moment, and in that moment he declares himself with more power and certainty than at any other moment in the play. And though his actions are unchecked, they are not uncontrolled. Rather, everything about Hamlet has come together at last.

Laertes and Hamlet's clash in Ophelia's grave foreshadows the final clash to come. That it takes place in a grave suggests that one or both might not make it out alive.

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