Hamlet Act 5, scene 1 Summary & Analysis
New! Understand every line of Hamlet.Read our modern English translation of this scene.
In a cemetery, two gravediggers discuss whether the body to be put in the grave they're digging should receive a Christian burial. The first grave digger argues that because the dead woman did not try to escape the water her death was a suicide. The second says that if she had not been a noblewoman she would not have received a Christian burial. The first grave digger asks a riddle: who builds stronger than the mason, shipbuilder, or carpenter? Answer: The grave-maker, whose "houses" last until doomsday.
By pointing out that nobles receive different treatment from organized religion than poor people do, the gravediggers show religion is unfair and influenced by appearance rather than the "reality" of someone's soul. Religion, that bedrock of human life, can't be trusted, and all of Hamlet's earlier philosophizing about religion and death, all his agonizing, was pointless.
Hamlet and Horatio enter. The second gravedigger exits. The first gravedigger throws up a skull he has found in the grave he's digging, then another. Hamlet wonders what sort of people the skulls belonged to when alive, and comments that their earthly possessions mean nothing to them now. The grave digger says that he became a grave digger on the day that Old Hamlet defeated Old Fortinbras in battle, which was also the same day that Hamlet was born.
Hamlet's continuing fascination with death here comes in contact with the man who knows the most about it: a grave digger.
Hamlet asks the gravedigger how long it takes a body to decompose. The grave digger points to a skull that was once Yorick, a court jester. Hamlet is shocked: he knew Yorick. Hamlet examines the skull. He realizes that death will claim everyone, and says no amount of makeup can hold off the inevitable. Hamlet then wonders if the bodies of great kings like Alexander and Caesar now are dust used to plug holes.
There is one reality that awaits all men: death and decomposition. No matter whether you're Caesar or a beggar, that's your fate. While Horatio says that Hamlet is still thinking too much, Hamlet seems to find the idea freeing.
Horatio says Hamlet is considering "too curiously"—is overthinking things.
Horatio diagnoses Hamlet's "fatal flaw."
Hamlet and Horatio hear a noise and hide. Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, a priest, and other lords enter in a funeral procession with a coffin. The priest refuses to provide further religious services because Ophelia's death seemed like suicide. Laertes says his sister will be an angel while the priest howls in hell.
The priest is unwilling to provide further ceremony because it seemed like suicide. The priest can't tell the difference between appearance and reality, so he plays it safe.
Laertes jumps into Ophelia's grave to embrace her once more. Hamlet, shocked and distraught at Ophelia's death, follows Laertes into Ophelia's grave and claims to have loved Ophelia more than forty-thousand brothers could. They grapple until Hamlet exits in a rage.
Interesting that Hamlet claims to love Ophelia only after she dies.