From the appearance of the Ghost at the start of the play to its bloody conclusion, Hamlet is pervaded with the notion of death. What better site for a comic interlude than a graveyard? However, this scene is not merely a bit of comic relief. Hamlet's encounter with the gravedigger serves as a forum for Shakespeare to elaborate on the nature of death and as a turning point in Hamlet's character. The structure and changing mood of the encounter serve to move Hamlet and the audience closer to the realization that death is inevitable and universal.
This encounter is essential to the plot, in that it provides for Hamlet's return from England and sets the stage for Hamlet's discovery of Ophelia's death. It brings Hamlet from the state in which he was able to easily arrange for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to one in which he can feel deep sorrow at the loss of Ophelia. It further grants him a better perspective on the nature of death and on his own fate. Its sharp focus on death further serves to prepare the audience for the conclusion of the play. Up to this point, Hamlet has been an active agent in trying to fulfill his destiny as prescribed by his father's ghost. His actions were disorganized and his goal continually foiled. For example, his attempt to control the situation renders him incapable of killing Claudius when he is at prayer, since Hamlet wishes to manipulate the circumstances of Claudius' death so that he is "about some act that has no relish in't" (III, iv, 91-2). The lesson of the graveyard is that death is inevitable, not contrived. Having learned this lesson, Hamlet is a more passive agent of his own fate and the plot resolves itself. The ...
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...e his fate happen. Rather "the readiness is all" and he need only "let be" (V, i, 225; 227). He has answered his famous question "to be, or not to be" with the simple phrase "let be" (III, i, 56; V, i, 227).
The encounter with the gravedigger is clearly a turning point for Hamlet in which he realizes the two truths that are the theme of the play: death is inevitable; death is universal. By thus dramatizing the theme and placing a statement of it on the protagonist's lips, Shakespeare conveys this message to the audience. The statement of Hamlet's theme by its main character is borne out in his subsequent speech and actions, bringing about the restoration of order that is the conclusion of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. ca. 1600-1601. Ed. Edward Hubler. A Signet Classic. New York: Penguin Publishers,1963.
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