Scene: Act 5, Scene 1
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Summary: A tragic ghost story about Prince Hamlet’s quest to avenge his father and everything that happens along the way.
“Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…”
I recently saw a production of Hamlet, and it’s been on my mind lately. Right of the bat, this play has such a fascination with death. It begins with a ghost, the dead speaking right to us. Later we hear Hamlet talking about suicide, find out Ophelia actually has killed herself, have a scene in a graveyard, an accidental murder, a few more murders, and…you get the idea. I, and probably lots of other people because they are both famous Shakespearean tragedies, often end up comparing Hamlet and Macbeth. I feel like Macbeth is more of an extreme descent into horrific, violent madness. Hamlet feels more haunting. At its core it’s really just a ghost story. I could absolutely see a remake of the play as a horror movie. I don’t even watch horror movies but I would be so onboard with that. Shakespeare loves to play with the supernatural, he does it in Macbeth as well. Macbeth, now there’s a play that would make a good horror movie. “Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep…”. Okay, moving on… Hamlet is so complicated, so nuanced, it would not be fair for me to try and write about it in one little blog post, so instead I’m going to focus on one specific scene.
A lot of people might already know, to some extent, the story of Hamlet. It’s a really famous play, at least in the world of English literature. As I said, it’s also very complex. I’m not to explain the whole plot, but basically, a king’s ghost shows up to tell his son-Hamlet-that he was murdered by his brother and to avenge him. Hamlet goes through a lot of stuff trying to figure out if his uncle is guilty and how to kill him, while also pretending that he’s insane, being very angry at his mom, and totally alienating his girlfriend. He finds out his uncle is guilty through the power of theatre, accidentally kills his girlfriend’s dad, gets sent away. She kills herself, he comes back, everybody dies. Except there’s way more to it than that, and it’s really good.
Plays can be interpreted in so many ways, that’s one thing that’s so magical about theatre, no performance is ever the same. So, you could easily read what I have to say and think I am an absolute idiot, but it’s my read on what the playwright has given us. Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and Act 5, Scene 1, the scene with Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard, is probably my favorite scene in it. For one thing, the grave digger is great, but really it’s the exploration of Hamlet’s relationship with death. The way they did this scene in version I just saw was absolutely beautiful. The grave digger is just casually throwing skulls around, digging Ophelia’s grave, and Hamlet is totally thrown by it. Of course, it’s natural for him, he works with this stuff all day, none of it really matters anymore. Meanwhile, Hamlet is just sitting on the sidelines with Horatio. Another thing I love about that scene is how he is almost aggressively normal. As normal as a depressed prince who speaks to the ghost of his father can be, at least. Throughout most of the first act we have seen Hamlet putting on this show of madness, but now the only people around are his best friends and some random guy, so the pressure is off. No one even knows that he has made his way back into the country, after being sent off to England. The production I saw sort of modernized it, not the language just the clothing and setting, it was done beautifully, and it was so great because Hamlet, this prince, was just there in jeans and a sweatshirt, watching this guy digging a grave. This guy, who had no idea it was him because without the disguise of the fine clothes he was just another human who would die someday and rot in a grave just like the one he was digging. This guy, who probably understands better than most that all humans are equal in their mortality. And then we come to another famous moment. Hamlet picks up a skull and asks who it belonged to, and upon hearing the gravedigger’s answer realizes that he knew the man, Yorick, when he was a child. He has all these fond memories of him. He just says, in complete wonder, holding this skull, “I knew him, Horatio”. The way I read it, Hamlet isn’t sad here, he’s having a moment that is so relatable. It’s the “This piece of bone used to be a living, breathing person and now I’m holding it in my hand like a rock.” It’s an unfathomable thought, so big and so weighty that you can’t even wrap your mind around it. Thinking about death is an inevitable part of life, and I think the fact that Hamlet is just so mystified and overwhelmed, but maybe not terrified is interesting and wonderful.
Whether you like Shakespeare or not, his work has lasted because it is relatable on a basic human level. On an average day, I would say, most of us don’t see fairies and ghosts, or fake our own deaths, or cause storms and shipwrecks, but the underlying themes in Shakespeare’s work are things like love and insecurity and thoughts of death, that are still relatable to modern audiences after all this time.