Grave Thoughts

Hamlet, Act V: Scene 1

  • Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio

Of all the barnacles that have encrusted the staggering greatness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, more have accumulated around the graveyard scene than for any other save the immortal “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Yet I found it, in this reading, to be the most moving of the play by far.

The skull, as prop, has usurped too much screentime. It has distracted us from weight of what’s transpiring around us. And that, perhaps as well, is yet another hallmark of Shakespeare’s greatness: he breaks up the brooding and lament with the gravedigger’s nonchalance. The skull is a prop, no doubt. As are the lyrics of the songs. But this is no mockery here. This scene is meant to move.

And move it does. For we all fear death, and Hamlet too, though not in a distant sense, but in the very real awareness that our end can come at any time. We are not told what has brought Hamlet and Horatio to the mourning end of town, and at the hour when poor Ophelia is being taken to her grave.

When the procession (such that it is, for she is considered a suicide and not entitled to a proper burial except by stealth) arrives, Hamlet does not know the case, but just the cause. Shakespeare deftly allows us the advance knowledge to let our hearts break as Hamlet discovers who it is that died.

Until that moment, the puns barb death as an abstract. For the gravedigger, it means employment. For Horatio, a distant inevitability. For Hamlet, moreso than the others, there is a morbid curiosity:

HAMLET: How long will a man lie i’ th’ earth ere he rot?

An odd thought to be having at that moment. But he is wrestling with the senselessness of the fact that robs life’s accomplishments of meaning. Even Alexander the Great is but reduced to dirt in the end.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lines of Ozmandias, one of the great (and short) poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley that we had to read in high school. Maybe because it is so short. But I never forgot it nonetheless:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

As Harold Bloom would say, leave it to Shakespeare to usurp even the greatness that followed him. For when you read Hamlet say it better, it leaves you feeling that even Shelley’s words can’t hold a candle to the Bard’s:

HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest [RIP David Foster Wallace…] , of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chopfallen?

Neither the jester nor the world conqueror fares any better in death. And Hamlet is upset at that — not the reality of death, which he accepts, but that it undercuts every ambition a noble soul might have. This is the full flush of his earlier equivocation, the embodiment of his existential dispair. For if all human actions lead to the same grave place, why engage in the charade? Why partake of the tomfoolery? What, in God’s name, are we here for?

But such musings take a turn when the procession arrives. Hamlet and Horatio steal themselves away to overhear. It is now that the fates of Laertes and Hamlet truly become intertwined, not as fated foes but as secret brothers who ought to have been joined in law by Hamlet’s marriage to Laertes’s sister. And but for the crime of Claudius, it would have been!

Now in my edition of the play (Penguin hardbounds, as pictured earlier), a curious specification arises that is absent in another that I checked. When the mourners arrive, they are accompanied by a man described as: “a Doctor of Divinity as Priest.” Now I’m not trying to gloss the play or provide a commentary for each and every line. But Penguin insists on using DOCTOR to distinguish his lines where the other version merely says PRIEST — and I find that to be an outrageous simplification of Shakespeare’s intentional differentiation.

My point: first the gravediggers, then the “Doctor of Divinity” assert Ophelia’s disqualifications for proper burial because she is considered a suicide. (This becomes important, so bear with me.) The Doctor is practically a Pharisee when he sticks to the letter and not the spirit of the law, saying:

DOCTOR: Her obsequies have have been as far enlarged

As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,

And, but that great command o’ersways the order,

She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

Till the last trumpet.

This sends Laertes into an outrage of florid protestation. He knew his sister and her purity and worthiness as the “Doctor” does not. His words send shivers through my heart:

First, a calm rebuttal:

LAERTES: Must there no more be done?

He is answered with cold, bureaucratic legality:

DOCTOR: No more be done.

We should profane the service of the dead

To sing a requiem and such rest to her

As to peace-parted souls.

For grieving Laertes, this assertion is just too much. He launches forth:

LAERTES: Lay her i’ th’ earth,

And from her fair and unpolluted flesh

May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,

A minist’ring angel shall my sister be

When thou liest howling.

Wow. And it is these words which waken Hamlet to the news!

And not only this — his very mother confesses that she fully anticipated seeing Ophelia married to her son! Thus, Polonius and Laertes were BOTH wrong!!! They advised Ophelia against believing her heart and Hamlet’s professions of love, that he was above her station and couldn’t possibly be true to his vows.

QUEEN: I hoped thou shouldst be my Hamlet’s wife.

I thought thy bridebed to have decked , sweet maid,

And not have strewed thy grave.

Oh, the pain that must be coursing through Hamlet’s heart!  The passion that surges through this scene as he observes Laertes speak and act so eloquently on Ophelia’s behalf.

LAERTES: Hold off the earth awhile,

Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.

And he leaps into her grave!

This drives Hamlet to forget his place and reveal himself. When it comes to caring for Ophelia, no one has loved her more than he:

HAMLET: I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers

Could not with all their quantity of love

Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

Hamlet is challenging Laertes when in fact they share so much. If only they knew (and they will before the play ends), they would lay down their arms and avert the further impending tragedy.

But Claudius has too much to gain from their continued rivalry. With ruthless calculation he reminds Laertes:

LAERTES: Strengthen your patience in last night’s speech.

We’ll put the matter to the present push. —

For that bastard, there’s no letting up.


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