Enter two Clowns:
The last time we saw Hamlet he was saying, "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (4.4.65-66). Since then Ophelia has died, the King and Laertes have plotted Hamlet's death, and Hamlet has sent letters to the King announcing his sudden return to Denmark. Given all this build-up, we could expect climatic confrontation between Hamlet and the King. Instead, we get gravediggers.
In a scene that adds nothing to the plot, but offers generous helpings of comedy and philosophy, the gravediggers are clowns. In Shakespeare's plays a "clown" doesn't have a red nose and floppy shoes, but he is funny. He's a hick, an ignoramus, a fool who thinks he's wise. These clowns discuss the most profound issues in their clownish way, starting with the opening line of the scene, "Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?" (5.1.1-2). It's a laugh line. Instead of "salvation," he should have said "destruction." The Second Clown's reply is also a laugh line. He says "the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial" (5.1.4-5). First of all, instead of "coroner," the clown says "crowner," which did mean "coroner" a hundred years before. This suggests that the clown thinks of the coroner as a guy who hands out crowns, like a judge at an archery contest. Second, a coroner, like a judge or jury, "sits," but he sits in judgment, not on the corpse.
By this time, it must have occurred to us that these two clowns are digging Ophelia's grave. It's been less than two minutes since we heard the beautifully elegiac description of Ophelia's death, and now the gravediggers are busily at work, digging, and trying to figure out whether or not Ophelia committed suicide. First Clown offers the idea that it wasn't suicide if she drowned herself in self-defense. As though proving his point, he offers a fragment of fractured Latin: "It must be "se offendendo "; it cannot be else" (5.1.9). If the clown knew what he was talking about, he would have said "se defendendo," but his blunder is no more absurd than his idea. To kill someone is "se offendendo," an offense, unless it is "se defendendo," in self-defense, but how do you defend yourself against an offense committed by yourself in defense of yourself?
If the actors playing the clowns are any good, we're laughing. Are we supposed to think while we're laughing? Because if we think about the clowns' absurdities, we might realize that when we're not laughing, their absurdities are not so absurd. In fact, we think that the most common reason for suicide is that people "can't stand it anymore." They commit suicide because they are in unremitting pain, physical or psychological. So they do commit suicide in self-defense. Hamlet said as much when he asked why anyone would put up with the insults of life, "When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin? (3.1.75-76).
The clowns then reflect that if Ophelia had not been a gentlewoman she would not have had a Christian burial, and this leads First Clown to assert that the first gentlemen were "gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers" (5.1.30). His clownish reasoning is that they "bore arms." To "bear arms" is the sign of a gentleman, and it means that you have an officially registered coat of arms, such as Shakespeare got for his family when he had enough money. But the clown's idea is that all the diggers--"gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers"--must have had arms, or they couldn't have done any digging. First Clown then follows this up with another joke, a riddle that asks "What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?" (5.1.41-42).
Enter Hamlet and Horatio:
Hamlet asks Horatio, "Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making? (5.1.65-66). Horatio sensibly replies that the gravedigger has gotten used to it. Up to this point in the play, Hamlet has been unable to get used to the idea of his father's death, but in the following moments of the scene, Hamlet seems to adopt the gravedigger's viewpoint.
Nowadays, it's illegal to commingle human remains, but Shakespeare's day made more economical use of graveyard space, so as the gravedigger digs, he shovels up a skull. Hamlet comments, "That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once" (5.1.75). This comment is the first of many that Hamlet makes in the same vein. He mockingly speculates that the skull could have belonged to a politician who thought he could outsmart God, or to a courtier, who thought he could flatter a man out of a horse. Now there's just the skull, being knocked around by the gravedigger's spade. Hamlet says, "Here's fine revolution, and we had the trick to see't" (5.1.90-91). "Revolution" means "change," "and" means "if," and "trick" means "knack" or "ability." So Hamlet is saying that this change from life to death is a good thing to keep in mind, if only we could keep it in mind.
Meanwhile, the gravedigger shovels up another skull, and sings a morbidly jolly gravedigging song, about a "pickaxe," a "spade," and a "pit of clay" (5.1.96). Hamlet speculates that the second skull could have belonged to a lawyer, and he makes a series of punning comments about lawyers. (Have lawyers ever gotten any respect?) The general point of the jokes is that no matter how many legal documents you have, your whole estate will eventually be just six feet of dirt. Then Hamlet decides--for no apparent reason other than just because--that he will speak to the gravedigger. He steps forward, asks the gravedigger whose grave it is, and meets his match in mockery.
The gravedigger's answer to Hamlet's question is "Mine, sir" (5.1.119). This begins a quick-witted exchange between Hamlet and the clown, and the clown has the punchline. In answer to Hamlet's questions, the clown claims that the grave is not for a man, and not for a woman, either; when Hamlet finally asks who is to be buried in the grave, the clown answers: "One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she's dead" (5.1.135-136). So Hamlet never does learn that this is Ophelia's grave, and we're laughing at the way the gravedigger mocks death.
Next, Hamlet asks the gravedigger how long he's been on the job. The clown replies that he started the day that King Hamlet defeated King Fortinbras, which was the same day that Hamlet was born. He adds that the Hamlet he's talking about is the one who has gone mad and been sent to England. In England, he'll either "recover his wits," or not. If not, it won't matter, because everyone in England is mad. Hamlet then asks how Hamlet went mad, and the gravedigger gives him a nonsense answer, "e'en with losing his wits." Hamlet asks again, saying "upon what ground?" "Ground" means "cause," but the gravedigger turns the question away with a pun, saying, "Why, here in Denmark: I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years" (5.1.161-162).
(Thus, amidst the jokes, we learn that Hamlet is thirty years old. However, it's hard to see why this information is offered, and in such a roundabout, casual way. Shakespeare doesn't specify ages very often, and when he does so in other plays, it's easy to see why. Juliet's youth is an important element in her character, and Lear's age is equally important to his story. But thirty is neither very young nor very old, and if the fact that Hamlet is thirty is important, why weren't we told earlier?)
Hamlet's next question is "How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?" (5.1.163). Finally, one of his questions receives a straight answer: eight or nine years. Unless the man is rotten before he dies. On the other hand, a leather tanner will last longer, because then he'll be tanned himself, and keep out the water. And speaking of lying in the earth here's a skull, says the gravedigger, that's been in the grave for twenty-three years. At this moment, this meandering conversation suddenly takes a poignant turn. The skull is Yorick's.
If you've ever seen a picture of Hamlet, there's a good chance it has shown him holding Yorick's skull and looking into its empty eyes.
Hamlet tells Yorick's skull to go to a fine woman's dressing room and tell her that no matter how much make-up she uses, she'll be only a skull soon enough. Then he asks Horatio if Alexander the Great, after he was dead, looked like this skull. Horatio says that he must have, and Hamlet dismisses the skull, saying, "And smelt so? pah!" (5.1.200). At this point the editorial stage directions usually say that Hamlet "puts down the skull," but the "pah" makes it feel like he just tosses it aside. But he doesn't forget it. Yorick's skull has reminded him that we must all come to this, and he launches into a flight of fancy about how the clay of Alexander or great Caesar could be used as a cork for a beer-barrel or caulk to fix a hole in a wall.
Enter Priest, Laertes, King, Queen, courtiers, in procession with the Corpse of Ophelia:
In the funeral procession, the first person we hear is Laertes, asking the priest "What ceremony else? (5.1.223). Hamlet recognizes him, and points him out to Horatio as "a very noble youth." In a few minutes, Hamlet's opinion will change drastically.
Laertes is angry that Ophelia's rites are "maimed," and wants more to be done for his sister. The priest doesn't answer, Laertes repeats the question, and we find that the priest isn't too happy either. He says that Ophelia's death was "doubtful," and "but that great command o'ersways the order, / She should in ground unsanctified have lodged" (5.1.228-229). That is, if he had had his way, the regular procedure ("order") for a suicide would have been followed, and Ophelia would have been buried in unsanctified ground, and rocks thrown on her grave. But, because of a "great command" (presumably the King's), Ophelia has flowers. She has her "virgin crants" (a garland), and flowers to be scattered over her corpse, her "maiden strewments" (5.1.233). Laertes asks again if nothing more is to be done, and the priest replies that to do more would be an insult to "peace-parted" souls. This makes Laertes very angry. He declares that violets will grow from Ophelia's grave, while the priest can go to hell. He says, "I tell thee, churlish priest, / A ministering angel shall my sister be, / When thou liest howling" (5.1.240-242).
Only now does Hamlet realize whose grave this is. Meanwhile, Ophelia's corpse has been lowered into the grave, and the Queen steps forward to strew flowers, saying "Sweets to the sweet: farewell! / I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife" (5.1.243-244). This is certainly not what Laertes wants to hear, and he curses Hamlet, then leaps into Ophelia's grave, saying "Hold off the earth awhile, / Till I have caught her once more in mine arms" (5.1.249-250). With Ophelia's body in his arms he asks that the earth be piled on the both of them until a mountain covers the "quick and the dead."
Laertes' actions and words enrage Hamlet, and he rushes out from his hiding-place to leap into the grave, too. The fact that Laertes has just cursed him doesn't seem to matter to Hamlet. What matters, as he explains to Horatio in the next scene, is that "the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a towering passion" (5.2.79-80). "Bravery" means "showiness." Hamlet doesn't accuse Laertes of outright hypocrisy, but of being melodramatic. Of course, Hamlet is almost certainly right about Laertes. If Hamlet hadn't rushed out to join Laertes in the grave, it doesn't seem likely that Laertes would have actually stayed in there while the gravedigger shoveled dirt onto him. Still, why should it matter so much to Hamlet?
Hamlet's first words melodramatically mock Laertes' melodramatic grief: "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?" (5.1.254-257). Once Hamlet is in the grave, Laertes grapples with him, but apparently not with deadly intent, because Hamlet takes four lines to tell him to get his fingers off his throat. Horatio and others intervene to separate the two, and they come out of the grave. (Just how grotesque have these few moments been? There are at least four feet in that grave with Ophelia's body. Does she get stepped on?)
Hamlet declares that he loved Ophelia, saying, "Forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum" (5.1.269-271). He then asks Laertes what he'll do for Ophelia. Will he fight? Starve himself? Eat a crocodile? If Laertes will do it, Hamlet will too. The motivation for this furious mockery now seems to be that Laertes' grief is an affront to Hamlet's, as though Laertes were putting on a show of grief in order to demonstrate that Hamlet has no grief for Ophelia. Hamlet says to Laertes, "Dost thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave?" (5.2.277-278). And just before he exits, Hamlet asks Laertes, perhaps without mockery, "Hear you, sir; / What is the reason that you use me thus? / I loved you ever" (5.1.288-290). The notion that Laertes is trying to outdo Hamlet in grief seems highly illogical, but perhaps it indicates that Hamlet has doubts or guilt about the depth of his feeling for Ophelia.
Both the King and Queen try to calm Laertes by saying that Hamlet is mad, but as soon as Hamlet is gone, the King takes the opportunity to reassure Laertes that they will soon put their plot against Hamlet into motion.
Thus, as far as the plot of the play is concerned, the only thing that happens in the whole scene is that the threat to Hamlet's life is intensified. It seems that a major purpose of the scene must be to show the development of Hamlet's character. But development in what direction? He banters about death with the gravedigger, with Yorick's skull, and with Horatio, then flashes into anger at Laertes' grief over Ophelia. And there's no soliloquy to explain it all.