In the Graveyard




It is the most iconic of all the images (stage pictures, tableaux, gests?) to emerge from Hamlet – the funereally-clad Dane gazing into the empty orbits of a skull he holds in front of him, musing on the living individual that once enclosed it. It is impossible now to imagine the play in separation from this pose, shored up as it is by countless homages, allusions and parodies across the range of visual media – from theatrical portraiture to advertising to postmodern cinema. Yet the ‘graveyard’ scene of which it forms a part is also arguably the most dispensable of the play. No aspect of the plot is carried forward during the events of 5.1: Hamlet’s return to Denmark is already expected by the court; his discovery of Ophelia’s death has no important narrative consequences; and the fight with Laertes at her graveside is not significant in sealing his fate since he has already been marked for death by Polonius’ avenging son (4.7). Accordingly, some 18th and 19th century productions did omit the scene, albeit primarily on grounds of ‘decorum’ (for which read French neo-classical standards of good taste: Voltaire in particular found the scene ‘ridiculous’ and repellent) [1]. While no modern-day production would share these qualms, it remains tempting to agree with the editor of Hamlet who suggested that the entirety of 5.1 may have constituted a theatrical ‘afterthought’, since 5.2 ‘would follow naturally’ upon 4.7, bridging back to it via ‘Hamlet’s narration to Horatio of what had happened to bring him back to Elsinore’ [2].

Accepting, then, that the graveyard scene probably does represent an ‘afterthought’, we can try to add to this appraisal by also reading it as an ‘aftermath’ to everything that has gone before – a status that can be justified even though the resolution of the revenge plot has yet to be achieved. The scene itself leads up to and concludes with the burial of Ophelia, thus reflecting back upon that entire portion of the play which deals with her, and her relationships with Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius. By contrast the revenge narrative – the immediate future in play terms – is almost wholly absent from its near-300 lines [3]. Structurally, the scene is bracketed by explicit references to Ophelia’s death, with the gravedigger’s chatter about the manner of her end forming the opening exchanges while her actual burial occupies the concluding ones. A crucial concern serves to connect these two references: the truncated, abortive nature of the funeral ceremonies. Hamlet will refer to them as the ‘maimed rites’ which accompany Ophelia to the grave (3408), and thematically they subtend the scene as a whole. This preoccupation emerges from the very first lines when the gravedigger, objecting that Ophelia’s death was by suicide, challenges the decision to extend a Christian burial to her (3190-1). In the comic repartee between him and his companion it is revealed that ‘had [she] not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial’ (3212-4), a point later endorsed by the priest who makes deliberate omissions to the ceremony to mark her as a suspected suicide (3415-23).


This emphasis on a suicide’s death for Ophelia and the religious stigma that attends it represents a marked deviation from Gertrude’s account in 4.7, which had appeared to describe her drowning as accidental. The editors of Arden 3 relate this to ‘the play’s wider interest in issues of salvation and damnation’ [4]; and, of course, we can add that the inference of self-murder furthers the way in which the play uses Ophelia’s distress to actualise states which in Hamlet had remained potential (real insanity for feigned madness; real suicide for hypothetical ‘self-slaughter’). But there seems something especially painful, especially pitiless, about adding this detail to the end of the play’s most innocent and misled victim. The posts on this site have argued throughout that Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet has had one overriding theatrical dynamic driving it: a symbolic identification between her own fate and that of Hamlet’s soul. From the moment he enters her closet in the narrated events of 2.1 – when this identification arguably takes place on the sigh that seems ‘to shatter all his bulk/And end his being’ (991-3) – through the terrible cruelty of his rejections of her during 3.1 and 3.2, to the mental disintegration and death which parallels his soul’s extinction offstage, this relation structures their interactions so closely that it is often conducted at the expense of a more conventionally-developed romantic narrative [5]. On this reading, we could expect Hamlet’s final encounter with the woman his actions have destroyed to include an encounter on the symbolic plane of the drama with the consequences of his own self-destructive act. The ‘maimed’ nature of the ceremonies for Ophelia’s ‘doubtful’ death would thus be in line with the play’s vision of Hamlet’s ‘maimed’ self.

Do the final stages of the play promote any such vision of Hamlet’s self, however? Commentators have often remarked on an apparent alteration to, or development in, Hamlet’s character on his return to Denmark, which can be variously identified in positive and negative terms. For John Hunt, for example, ‘it is clear that Hamlet adopts a new kind of understanding in Act 5, and that he undergoes some beneficial change as a result’ [6]. Others have echoed this idea of a new-found maturity, which is sometimes held to account for the scene’s deliberate identification of Hamlet as a thirty year-old rather than the ‘young Hamlet’ of the play’s earlier scenes. Others, however, detect a change for the worse, in ways enumerated by Marvin Rosenberg:

‘Some have seen Hamlet as in various ways diminished. “Ruined greatness”. “Shakespeare never lets us forget that [Hamlet] is a failure, or that he has failed through weakness of character” […] “Reckless and conscienceless.” “A spiritual decline.” “An unfeeling quality.”’ [7]

While it can often be difficult to demarcate the ‘later’ Hamlet clearly from the one of the first four acts, the characterisations given above come much closer to the kind of alteration in Hamlet’s psychological makeup argued for in the pages on this site. The process of soul-death which the play has been primarily concerned to outline has now completed its course and a vital component of Hamlet’s subjectivity has permanently and irreversibly gone. This sense of an inward absence is brought out over the course of the latter stages of the play as much through the lexical gaps it creates as through what Hamlet does say. As Harley Granville-Barker pointed out, for example, while the word ‘soul’ is in ‘very ample’ usage up to the end of the end of the third act, from thereon it is ‘by Hamlet himself […] not once used after’ [8]. This is an important negative indicator of a missing dimension to Hamlet; but aspects of 5.1 also reveal positive reflections of a man who is inwardly partially destroyed.


The opening and closing stages of the scene, for example, are connected not just by references to Ophelia’s burial but also an explicit citing of ‘doomsday’ – Judgement Day according to Christian belief. Here again, a comic allusion on the part of the gravedigger becomes a harsher point made at Ophelia’s graveside by the priest, who declares that a suicide should lie in ‘ground unsanctified […] Till the last trumpet’ (3418-9). While it may be no surprise to find such allusions in a scene which plays out in a graveyard and ends in a funeral, their use in combination with the ‘maimed rites’ theme to enclose the main scenic content is particularly significant in defining Hamlet’s predicament at this stage of the story. The gravedigger’s opening banter puts a concluding riddle to his associate: ‘What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter?’ (3230-1). The answer is: ‘a grave-maker’, since ‘the houses he makes lasts till doomsday’ (3248-9). It is this reflection that ushers Hamlet into the graveyard, and begins the long set of exchanges on the ‘base uses’ – the final, ignominious physical reductions – of the once-vital person after death. Hamlet’s remarks to Horatio on the skulls and bones of the dead as they are cast up by the gravedigger at first seem nuanced to suggest a ‘feeling’ response on his part to the indignities of being ‘knocked about the mazard with a sexton’s spade’:

Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with them? Mine ache to think on’t. (3281-3)

However, these sentiments are rich with a deliberate, class-inflected irony, since the skulls are all imagined to have belonged to staple objects of Elizabethan satire – a politician, a courtier, a Lord, a lawyer. These are portrayed as entirely self-serving individuals, their materialistic concerns in life – to beg a property, to aggrandize land – oddly complemented by their prolonged existence as singularly material properties, as pieces in the ground (not to mention ‘props’ on stage). So Hamlet’s declarations of ‘feeling’ at their rough handling are heavily undercut by the wry characterisations he provides for them:

Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer? […] Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? (3290-4)


Each of the individuals Hamlet revivifies in his fantasies has an impressive loquacity as his dominant verbal mode; but none of them can compete in this respect with the one he turns to last. The skull of Yorick, the King’s jester and boyhood favourite of Hamlet, has a real rather than an invented past existence, and is further distinguished from the previous figures in being an agent of public pleasure, not of private gain. More importantly, in gazing on Yorick Hamlet is gazing on the remains of a man like himself: ‘a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy’ (3373). And as he eulogises over Yorick’s erstwhile ‘gibes’, ‘gambols’ and ‘flashes of merriment’ Hamlet’s own seemingly inexhaustible displays of verbal inventiveness and wit throughout the play – whether framed as part of his adopted madness or not – are recollected. Without shifting the tone significantly from the earlier observations on mortality, then, this mirroring confrontation with Yorick’s skull allows Hamlet’s meditative addresses to attain a speaker-specific and tragic dimension. Hamlet, standing among the graves discoursing on the lamentable state to which all humanity must come, is (from the perspective of orthodox Christian doctrine) in a far worse situation than any of his objects of pity, given that these dead bones will at least be raised up again and re-joined with their souls on the Last Day [9]. It is a fate which Hamlet himself must now be denied, in accordance with a ruthless narrative logic that extrapolates the long-term consequences from the process of soul-death which the play has described.

The requirement for audience/reader reception of the scene at two distinct levels – the manifest and the symbolic – is brought home more fully with the episode of Ophelia’s burial and the fight with Laertes. The eschatological implications of 5.1 have already been enlarged during the digressive segment with the gravedigger, which deals with the length of time the latter has been in his occupation (3333-52). The gravedigger cites the conjunction of two key events as a reference point for his starting-date – the defeat of Old Fortinbras by Old Hamlet on the day of young Hamlet’s birth – before confirming more than 10 lines later that he has been ‘sexton here man and boy thirty years’ (3351-2). This information functions as a precise and carefully underlined indication of Hamlet’s own age – one which evidently contradicts the unambiguous portrayal of him as a ‘young’ man elsewhere in the play [10]. Although this is often treated as a discrepancy (with indecision about characterisation or theatrical accommodation of a middle-aged actor at its heart) there is no need to assume one if the ‘thirty-year’ estimate is understood as entirely scene-specific, forming part of 5.1.’s complex of ‘doomsday’ motifs. Thus, and again in accordance with orthodox Christian doctrine, the event of the Resurrection was to include not just the revival but also the perfecting of all human bodies, so that men and women assumed the age of Christ at his death at the point of reunion with their souls. So for example, it was Augustine’s opinion that:

‘for St. Paul’s words of the measure of the fullness of Christ […] if they apply to the resurrection, the meaning is that all should arise neither younger nor older, but just of that age whereat Christ Himself suffered and rose again. For the learned authors of this world say that at about thirty years man is in his full state…’ (The City of God; bk.22, ch.14).

It is this ‘full state’ that is reflected in the ‘spiritual body [which] will be patterned after Christ’s resurrection body’ – a body which is like its mortal counterpart in being a composite of body and soul (otherwise there would be no need for re-joining them), but unlike it in being ‘incorruptible’ [11]. The action of the scene can thus been understood as advancing Hamlet to this optimal age of thirty – temporarily and for the effect of theatrical prolepsis only – and placing him among the graves of the dead with the specific object of anticipating this reunion.


That reunion is to be realized in symbolic form by the incident at Ophelia’s graveside. When the funeral procession enters Hamlet and Horatio have moved into hiding; but Hamlet is soon goaded into revealing his presence after hearing Laertes’ passionate outburst of grief over the corpse of his sister:

Hold off the earth awhile

Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.

[Leaps in the grave]

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead

Till of this flat a mountain you have made… (3442-6)

Hamlet’s interjection, however, does not arise from a direct response to the news of Ophelia’s death (which he has only just learnt, cf. 3434), but from a desire to counter Laertes’ own response. His opening address constitutes a challenge to him on purely rhetorical grounds, and then attempts a bold appropriation of his words to Hamlet’s own name and title:

What is he whose grief

Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow

Conjures the wandering stars and makes them stand

Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,

Hamlet the Dane (3449-53).


While this has sometimes been seen as Hamlet’s assertion of his claim to kingship, the context does not really seem to invite this reading. Rather, Hamlet engages in a form of elaborate emulation by challenging Laertes in the manner of a rival lover – the very role which in his ‘phrase of sorrow’ Laertes appears to be outdoing him. So, once the ensuing scuffle is broken up, he treats this rivalry as a ‘theme’ – a bone of contention to be settled by a contest in which rhetorical figures of amplification and multiplication will carry the day:

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers

Could not with all their quantity of love

Make up my sum


Woul’t weep, woul’t fight, woul’t fast, woul’t tear thyself,

Woul’t drink up easel, eat a crocodile?

I’ll do’t. (3466-74)

Those who purport to find in Hamlet a new sense of spiritual decline, or lack of feeling, have their best textual support here, for while his fantastical terms and resources of mockery far surpass the language of his ‘rival’, they serve ultimately to betray the inadequacy of his grief. What can be detected instead of genuine grief is the furtherance of that concern with personal reputation which has been the cornerstone of Hamlet’s ethical beliefs since the soliloquy on leaving Denmark. Finding ‘quarrel in a straw’, he accounts his honour trespassed on by Laertes’ adoption of the role of mourner-in-chief. This battle for precedent, with emulation as Hamlet’s weapon of choice then takes a further, histrionic step, for it seems probable that it is during this ‘rant’ that Hamlet now imitates Laertes actions and not just his words, leaping into the grave and himself taking Ophelia’s corpse into his arms:

Be buried quick with her and so will I.

And if thou prate of mountains let them throw

Millions of acres on us, till our ground,

Singeing his pate against the burning zone,

Make Ossa like a wart. Nay an thou’lt mouth,

I’ll rant as well as thou. (3476-81)

While the precise chain of events is open to interpretation, with contradictory stage directions in the early printed texts, the idea that Hamlet ‘leapes in after Laertes’ may gain support if it relies on a garbled memory of Hamlet jumping in sequentially after him, in keeping with the pattern of imitative behaviour his words describe [12]. He thus claims Ophelia physically for his own, and in so doing completes the symbolic enactment of doomsday, reuniting ‘soul’ and body in the grave. That soul, however, has perished, leaving his act to proclaim not a fulfilled rite but a ‘maimed’ one, in which his claim to an eternal, spiritual body, like his claim to recognition as Ophelia’s lover, has come too late. In this way, the consequences of the whole preceding action of the play are illustrated at their furthest perspective, in which Hamlet, alone among the inhabitants of the graveyard, must be denied the assurance of immortality granted to others at the End of Time.


[1] Voltaire in 1733 spoke of ‘this ridiculous Incident’ as being ‘unbecoming such a Piece as this’, and in deference to his view the eighteenth-century actor-manager Garrick omitted the scene in some of his productions.

[2] T.J.B. Spencer, in Hamlet, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980).

[3] The only place where Hamlet so much as alludes to his revenge project against Claudius is close to the scene’s end, with the lines ‘Let Hercules himself do what he may/The cat will mew, and dog will have his day’ (3490-1). The revenge against Hamlet, is of course more explicitly referred to by Laertes at 3439-42, and Claudius at 3493-4.

[4] Arden 3 Hamlet, p.410, n.

[5] Such an identification is assisted by the parallel, noted in Arden 2 Hamlet, between Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s sigh and Clarence’s description of his dream of drowning, whereby ‘the envious flood/Stopp’d in my soul’ and ‘smother’d it within my panting bulk/Which almost burst to belch it in the sea’ (Richard III, Arden 2, 1.4.37-41). The ‘bulk’ is the chest and surrounding area, and traditionally the habitation of the soul. Hamlet’s ‘sigh’ thus metaphorises an exhalation of the soul at the moment of physical disintegration – a process of externalisation to which Ophelia is thus both witness and recipient.

[6] See John Hunt, ‘A Thing of Nothing: the Catastrophic Body in Hamlet’, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, New Casebooks, Martin Coyle (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992), p.188. A weighing up of the alternative views on Hamlet’s character after his return can be found in Ann Thompason & Neil Taylor, Hamlet, Writers and their Work (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996), pp.14-15.

[7] Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1992), p.833.

[8] Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol.1: Hamlet (London: B.T. Batsford, 1930 (1963)), p.303.n.

[9] See, for example, John Calvin’s typical statement: ‘Albeit the doctrine of the resurrection seeme incredible in mans reason: yet we that are Christians must beleeve it & receive it: that is, we must beleeve that the bodies of the dead shalbe restored to their first state, and their soules shall reenter them againe, so they shall live and rise againe at the last day’ (Aphorismes of Christian Religion, trans. by H.Holland (London: Richard Field and Robert Dexter, 1596), p.110.

[10] The commentary on Hamlet’s age has a very long critical history, which is not surprising given the impact it can have on the performer’s approach to characterisation. The Commentary Note on these lines in The Enfolded Hamlet cites remarks and discussions going back to 1747. A very comprehensive assessment of the debate can be found in Harold Jenkins’ Longer Note, Arden 2 Hamlet, pp.551-4, which is valuable for its argument that the thirty-year age specification is more than simply oversight on Shakespeare’s part.

[11] James Dunn, quoted in Paul S. MacDonald, History of the Concept of Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p.106.

[12] It seems clear that Laertes, having been in the grave, must come out of it to assault Hamlet (‘I prithee take thy fingers from my throat’, 3456). However, a long-standing stage tradition held that Hamlet leapt into the grave alongside Laertes on revealing himself, initiating a sensational fight in the pit. In this it was following the lead of the textually unreliable but paratextually rich First Quarto (1603), which prints the marginal direction ‘Hamlet leapes in after Laertes’ only a few lines after Hamlet reveals himself. While the action itself gains support from a contemporary anecdote of Richard Burbage’s performance: ‘Oft have I seen him leap into the grave’ (Elegy on Burbage), as a direction it seems unlikely on grounds of use of stage space. Given the memorial nature of Q1’s textual basis and its habit of transposing speeches, it is possible to suppose it may have mis-located, and misremembered, a direction that referred to the two antagonists leaping in one ‘after’ the other. So: Laertes leaps into the grave (3444); Laertes leaps out to assault Hamlet (3454); Hamlet leaps into the grave to emulate Laertes (3476).

All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).