365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

280. The significance of the gravedigger scene in “Hamlet”

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Any search for images related to Shakespeare will almost certainly yield at least one image of someone holding a skull. That iconic scene from “Hamlet” is what most people associate with Shakespeare, and it is unlikely that the phrase “Alas, poor Yorrick” will be going away anytime soon. Indeed, the gravedigger scene from “Hamlet” is one that will live on forever. But what exactly is the significance of the scene? It all lies in how it is played.

The point is made that even the greatest of kings must die, and no matter his greatness, he will end up decomposing just like the most common of men. This is a vital moment of foreshadowing for the title character, who was meant to be king after his father’s passing but whose rightful gain of the throne was usurped by Claudius. For Hamlet, who has spent much of the play philosophizing about death and grieving over it, this moment reminds him that it is one of only a few things that ties together all of mankind, no matter the other differences.

The biggest thing that determines what the gravedigger scene really signifies is who plays the gravediggers. Most productions of “Hamlet” use this opportunity to employ actors who also play another role, thus adding another layer to their other character. For instance, some productions will use the same actors who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be the gravediggers, thus foreshadowing the announcements of their deaths. The same convention has been used by employing the actress who plays Ophelia to play one of the gravediggers, so that she is literally digging her own grave. This is a tricky move, but it can be a wonderfully effective one all the same. Because death is so prevalent in “Hamlet”, it makes perfect sense that one of the characters who dies or is already dead ought to be in the grave.

The other thing that is important about the gravedigger scene is the fact that Hamlet reminisces so much about his childhood, when he was happy with his friend, the clown. It is a wonderful touch of sentiment that Shakespeare uses to give Hamlet yet more depth and allow the audience to see that he was not always so gloomy and melancholy; that his life has truly been rent apart by these extraordinary circumstances.

The gravedigger scenes is not necessarily the most important scene in “Hamlet”, but there is certainly a reason for its endurance, and for the way it has fascinated scholars for centuries.

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Written by Caroline Mincks

July 8, 2010 at 11:32 PM

One Response

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    May 11, 2011 at 4:03 AM


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