Hamlet: Gravedigger, gravedigger

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Cymbeline, Act 4 Scene 2.

For Hamlet’s plot till now, see Hamlet So Far.

Act 5 Scene 1. It’s rather late in the play. The groundlings are getting restless. They want to see someone like themselves. All they’ve been getting is royalty, royalty, royalty. Where’s the ordinary guy? Why can’t you put somebody like me in the play? He doesn’t have to be a hero, but at least, give him some lines.

Oh, sure, Will. You gave us some common folk in the guards at the beginning. But this play is turning into an epic. We’ve been standing here for over three hours and there hasn’t been anybody like us after that first couple of scenes. Pretty soon we are going to have to pee. Before we do, we want to see a commoner up there on stage.

Will is always one to accommodate. He gave the groundlings the porter in the scene in Macbeth shortly after Duncan’s murder. Funny scene that one. Important because it relieved the tension. It was a groundling who sold Cleopatra the asp. A couple of Irish cops opened “Julius Caesar”. And need we forget how important Bottom was in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He’s the one Puck disguised as a donkey. Very funny those scenes.

So you can imagine how restless the groundlings are getting. They like to see themselves on stage. Maybe not in every scene. At least in a few. That’s all they ask. The Bard being the Bard accommodates. Will-ingly.

He throws in the Gravedigger scene. The play could have gone on without this scene. It would have made the play shorter, and that would have been a good thing. However, with death coming down on everybody’s head, some comic relief was just what the doctor order. So we are introduced to the guys who actually do some real work:

The Gravedigger and his friend, Other, are conversing. The Gravedigger was played by Billy Crystal in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and Stanley Holloway was in Olivier’s version. Great comic actor, Stanley Holloway. He played Eliza Doolittle’s father in “My Fair Lady” and sang, “Get me to the church on time”. Stole the show. Robert Armin or Will Kempe, both great Elizabethan clowns, probably played the Gravedigger in Will’s production of the play. Gives you some idea how important Shakespeare thought this scene was.

To open Act 5 with a scene in the graveyard seems an act of genius. Death is everywhere. There is foreboding all over the place. So what does Shakespeare do? He uses that foreboding for some relief. It’s kind of like the jokes between the doctors and the nurses in the Emergency Room. It allows those folks a way to relax so they can do their job.

The Gravedigger, Goodman Delver, is a realist, a reminder of how we all end up.

“Are they going to give her a Christian burial when she seeks her own salvation?” he asks as he digs. Reminding the audience that everybody thought Ophelia was a sucide.

“I tell thee she is,” Other answers. “Therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath sat on her and finds it Christian burial.” How about that? Make her grave straight. As if Goodman could make it crooked. He probably could if he tried. He is that good of a gravedigger. But why would he?

I find the picture of the coroner sitting on Ophelia’s body funny. But that was the way folks talked back then.

“If she wasn’t a noble woman, there’d be none of that Christian burial-ing.” Even in those days, bribery worked. Somebody greased the palm of the coroner to get the results they wanted. That is what our Gravedigger friend is saying.

“Is that how the law sees it?”

“Ay, marry is it. Crowner’s quest law.”

“If you’re a commoner, that is.”

“There’s one law for the likes of they,” Gravedigger Goodman comments. “And one for the likes of we Christians.” Then he speaks to his shovel. “Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and gravemakers. They hold up Adam’s profession.”

“Was Adam a gentleman?” Other asked.

“Don’t you understand the Scriptures? The Scripture says Adam digged. I’ll put another question to you.”

“Go ahead.”

“Who is he that builds stronger than a mason, the shipwright or a carpenter?

“The gallows-maker, of course, Other answers, sure of himself. “That frame outlives a thousand tenants.”

“The gallows only does well to those who do ill.”

“Who then?”

“The gravedigger, that’s who,” Goodman says proudly. “The houses he makes last till doomsday. Now go fetch me a stoup of liquor.”

Now you might frown on the gravedigging business. You say that you would not want your kids going into the trade. Here’s something to think about. Gravediggers always have business. As long as folks die, there is no recession in the gravedigging enterprise. And it pays top dollar. ‘Cause there’s a lot of folks who won’t do it.

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3 thoughts on “Hamlet: Gravedigger, gravedigger

  1. You have had such a good time with your retelling of Hamlet, as have we. I told you right after I found your blog that I wish I had read your version of Hamlet before I attempted to teach it to high schoolers. I still feel that way. Your take on the gravediggers, particularly the last paragraph, would have pleased my high school students inordinately.

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