A pair of gravediggers are at work in a patch of land outside the walls of Elsinore. The first gravedigger asks the second if an unnamed woman—understood to be Ophelia—is going to receive a “Christian burial” even though she committed suicide. The second gravedigger says she is, and orders the first to hurry up and dig the grave. The two debate whether Ophelia willingly took her own life or simply drowned. The second gravedigger believes Ophelia did kill herself, and is only being given a proper burial because of her noble status. The first gravedigger tacitly agrees, lamenting the privileges granted to the upper classes.
The gravediggers are in the minority within Hamlet, as they are commoners forced to work for the nobility and the monarchy rather than members of the upper classes themselves. They lament that the rich are hypocrites—even if they betray the social and religious codes that govern society in life, they’re afforded a pass in death.
The gravediggers continue bantering about the origin of human life and telling macabre riddles. When one of the gravediggers forgets the answer to a joke he has posed, the other suggests he go inside and fetch them both some liquor to drink while they work. Soon, Hamlet and Horatio approach the graveyard to find the first gravedigger singing as he digs. Hamlet is amazed by the man’s merriment in the face of such a morbid task.
Though Hamlet has spoken rather blithely about suicide and death himself, he’s disgusted by the facts of death and the stink of corruption and rot. Seeing men who work among the dead behaving so merrily thus puzzles him.
When the gravedigger throws a skull out of the ground, Hamlet is further offended by the man’s casual handling of human remains. Hamlet approaches the skull and wonders that once it “had a tongue in it and could sing.” He ponders who the skull could have belonged to—a politician, a courtier, or a lawyer. As Hamlet monologues at length about the skull’s possible origins, he laments how death steals everything, erasing all that people were, all they loved, and all they accomplished while they still lived.
Hamlet has spent a lot of the play talking and thinking about death—but coming face-to-face with actual human remains affects him differently than even facing his father’s own ghost. Hamlet begins to reckon with what it really means for a life to come to an end, begin to decompose, and fade from both physical and emotional memory.
Hamlet decides to ask the gravedigger whose grave he’s digging. The gravedigger cheekily replies that the grave is his own. Hamlet says it should indeed be the gravediggers’—he “liest” in it, a play on words. Hamlet asks the gravedigger to be serious and tell him what man—or woman—the grave is for. The gravedigger insists it’s for no man or woman, but instead someone who once “was a woman” before her death. Hamlet is both impressed and slightly annoyed by the gravedigger’s verbal gymnastics and affinity for puns.
The gravediggers are unique in that they represent commoners—but this gravedigger is also unique in that he’s the first character in the play who can really spar verbally with Hamlet on the prince’s level. This is a subtle commentary on the class divide between noblemen and commoners—although Hamlet is socially superior to the gravedigger, they are clearly intellectual equals.
Hamlet asks the man how long he’s been a gravedigger, and the gravedigger answers that he started work on the day that King Hamlet defeated Fortinbras—the same day that the young Prince Hamlet was born. The gravedigger states that though the young prince was recently sent to England to “recover his wits”—but even if he doesn’t the gravedigger says, insanity is “no great matter” in England. Hamlet asks “upon what ground” the prince lost his wits—in other words, why he went mad. The gravedigger replies that the prince went mad “here in Denmark.”
The gravedigger continues to spar verbally with Hamlet, appearing not to recognize the man as the prince of whom he speaks. It’s also possible that the gravedigger does recognize Hamlet and is just toying with him out of his contempt for the upper classes.
Hamlet asks how long it takes for a body to begin rotting in the ground, and the gravedigger estimates that decomposition takes about eight or nine years. Pointing out the skull on the ground, the gravedigger estimates that it has been in the ground for about 23 years. Hamlet asks who the skull belonged to, and the gravedigger answers that it was the skull of Yorick, the king’s jester. Hamlet picks up the skull and examines it more closely, then cries out to Horatio that he once knew Yorick—in life, “a fellow of infinite jest” who used to entertain Hamlet and give him piggy-back rides. Hamlet laments that all of Yorick’s defining characteristics are gone.
Realizing that he is holding the skull of Yorick—a man he once knew and loved—sends Hamlet into an even deeper spiral as he ruminates on the nature of life, death, and decay. The fact that all of Yorick’s unique and likeable characteristics have been erased by death adds an additional layer of nihilism to Hamlet’s existential musings. It begs the question of why one should value one’s own life or the lives of others, or why one should act morally (or act at all, for that matter) if death renders all of these variables irrelevant in the end.
Hamlet asks Horatio if he thinks even Alexander the Great came to look—and smell—like the poor Yorick after being buried, and Horatio says that he probably did. “To what base uses we may return,” Hamlet laments.
Hamlet is devastated to realize in such plain terms that all humans wind up anonymous and rotted in the ground. This difficult moment only confirms his feelings throughout the play that his life is meaningless.
Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, a group of courtiers, and a priest approach bearing a coffin. Noticing the plainness of the procession, Hamlet tells Horatio that whomever the group is burying must have committed suicide, but was still of noble rank. Hamlet asks Horatio to hide with him and watch the burial.
Hamlet does not yet know Ophelia is dead—but he is about to witness her funeral. Hamlet can tell from the appearance of the procession what kind of funeral it is—but doesn’t yet know the reality of who’s being buried.
Laertes asks the priest what rites will be performed. The priest says that he’s already “as far enlarged” the service as he can for someone who committed suicide—but because the woman who died (Ophelia) was a noble, the priest has made sure she was allowed to be buried made up like a virgin, with flowers strewn on her grave. Laertes asks the priest if anything more can be done, but the priest says that to do more for this woman would be to “profane the service of the dead.” Laertes says he hopes that violets spring from Ophelia’s grave—while the priest “liest howling” in hell.
The priest seems to imply that Ophelia was not a virgin when she died—but was allowed to be buried as one, just as she was allowed to receive funeral rites in spite of the fact that she took her own life. The appearance of Ophelia’s burial obscures the reality of the circumstances of her death.
Hamlet, realizing that Ophelia is the one who has died, cries out in pain. He watches as Laertes, distraught, jumps into his sister’s grave and continues loudly weeping for her. Hamlet comes forward, insisting that his grief is more intense than Laertes’s, and also dives into Ophelia’s grave. Laertes curses Hamlet, and the two of them begin fighting. Claudius, Gertrude, and Horatio all beg for the men to stop fighting, and a pair of courtiers separate them. Hamlet vows to fight Laertes until his last breath—his love for Ophelia, he says, is greater than that of “forty thousand brothers.” Claudius and Gertrude lament that Hamlet is truly mad. Hamlet leaves the gravesite, and Horatio follows him. Claudius begs Laertes to be patient—he’ll soon have his chance to avenge his sister.
Hamlet and Laertes try to one-up each another—rather ridiculously—in an attempt to prove that they each loved Ophelia best. Neither of them seem able to accept her death, and each believe the other is somehow to blame. This morbid graveside scene demonstrates how woefully ill-prepared both men are to deal with the realities of death—even as they crave one another’s demise.