Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1 Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:04 Hamlet in the Graveyard
  • 3:10 Ophelia's Funeral
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson consists of a summary of Act 5, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's tragedy ''Hamlet'' as well as an analysis of several of the most significant quotes in the scene.

Hamlet in the Graveyard

Act 5 Scene 1 of Hamlet opens in a graveyard. Two gravediggers are digging a grave for Ophelia, whom we learned drowned in Act 4, Scene 7. One of them asks the other, ''is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation?'' The other replies that yes, it will be a Christian funeral; the coroner has declared it so. Many people are of the opinion that she drowned herself because she had gone mad after her father's death.

The gravediggers have this discussion because, according to Christian doctrine, suicide is a serious sin, and the bodies of people who have killed themselves should not be buried in a church cemetery. The first gravedigger cannot see how her death could be seen as anything other than suicide, and they decide that rich people can probably get away with killing themselves and having Christian funerals.

The gravediggers go back and forth exchanging riddles such as, ''Who builds stronger things than a stonemason, a shipbuilder, or a carpenter,'' the answer being gravediggers because the houses they build last until ''Judgement Day.''

Horatio and Hamlet enter the scene and watch the gravediggers at work. Hamlet sees that they are lifting and moving the remains of some bodies to make room for Ophelia's grave. One of the gravediggers is singing as he works, and Hamlet is bothered by it, thinking he is being too lighthearted for the somber, or sad and serious, job he has. He wonders about the lives of these people whose bones the gravedigger is handling: ''Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel?'' He says this skull may have been a lawyer in his former life, and now he cannot do anything about the rude gravedigger singing and handling his bones so carelessly.

Hamlet asks whose grave they are digging. One of the gravediggers, who does not realize that it is Hamlet he is speaking to, answers him in riddles and paradoxes, but eventually admits that it ''was a woman, but, rest her soul, she is dead.'' This gravedigger's playful speech in a serious situation is meant to be similarly irritating as when Hamlet would not tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what he did with Polonius's body in Act 4.

The gravedigger goes on to say that he has been digging graves for a long time, ever since Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, killed Fortinbras' father, which was the year young Hamlet was born. He mentions that Hamlet went mad and was sent to England, where he will blend in because everyone there is mad. Hamlet asks the gravedigger more questions about his job, clearly disturbed about the idea of mortality and the fact that someone as glib as this gravedigger might be in charge of his remains one day.

When Hamlet picks up a skull, the gravedigger tells him that it is the skull of Yorick, who was the court jester of Hamlet's father. This is upsetting to Hamlet, first of all because he knew Yorick, and second of all because he is forced to come to terms with the fact that everyone becomes nothing but a skull, and you can't tell the difference between a jester and someone great like Julius Ceasar or Alexander the Great based on their skull.

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