David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 1

— 5.1 —

In a churchyard, two people — a gravedigger and his friend — talked about Ophelia’s death.

“Is she to be buried in Christian ground although she willfully sought her own salvation?” the gravedigger asked.

People who were known to have committed suicide were not given Christian burials; they were not buried on consecrated ground such as that of the churchyard.

The gravedigger had said that Ophelia had sought her own salvation, but perhaps he meant that she had sought her own damnation since suicide was thought to be a violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, King James Version). Or perhaps he meant her own destruction.

“I tell you she is,” the friend said, “and therefore make her grave without delay. The coroner has sat on her, and he has ruled that she will get a Christian burial. He has ruled that she is not guilty of committing suicide.”

By “sat on her,” the friend meant “has held an inquest on her.”

“How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defense?”

“Why, the coroner has made the decision.”

“It must be se offendendo; it cannot be anything else,” the gravedigger said.

Se offendendomeans “self-offense,” but perhaps the gravedigger meant se defendendo, which means “self-defense.”

The gravedigger continued, “For here lies the point: If I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act, and an act has three branches. They are to act, to do, and to perform. Argal, she drowned herself wittingly.”

By Argal, the gravedigger meant Ergo, which is Latin for “therefore.”

“But listen, Mr. Gravedigger —”

“Allow me to explain. Here lies the water. Good. Here stands the man. Good. If the man goes to this water, and drowns himself, it is, whatever he may think about it, the end of him — note that.

“But if the water comes to him and drowns him, he does not drown himself; argal, he who is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.”

“But is this law?” the friend asked.

“Yes, truly, it is. It is the coroner’s inquest law.”

“Do you want to know the truth?” the friend asked. “If she had not been a gentlewoman, she would have been buried outside of consecrated ground.”

“Why, that’s right,” the gravedigger said. “It’s the more pity that great folk should have legal approval in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their fellow Christians. Come, give me my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: They hold up Adam’s profession.”

“Was Adam a gentleman?”

“He was the first who ever bore arms,” the gravedigger said.

“Why, he had none. There is no way that Adam, the first man, ever had a coat of arms.”

“What, are you a heathen?” the gravedigger asked. “How do you understand the Scripture? The Scripture says, ‘Adam digged.’ How could Adam dig without arms?

“I’ll put another question to you: If you cannot answer it correctly, confess —”

The usual expression was “Confess and be hanged.”

The friend interrupted, “— what is your question?”

“What man is he who builds stronger than the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?”

“The gallows-maker,” the friend answered, “because the gallows outlives a thousand tenants.”

“I like your wit well, truly,” the gravedigger said. “The gallows is a good answer. It does well, but how does it do well? It does well to those who do ill; now you do ill to say that the gallows is built stronger than the church. Argal, the gallows may do well to you.

“Come on, try again. Come on.”

“Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?”

“Yes, tell me the correct answer, and then you can knock off for the day.”

“That’s a good reward. I can tell you the answer now.”

“Tell me.”

“I don’t know the answer.”

Hamlet and Horatio arrived on the scene and listened to the gravedigger and his friend talk.

“Cudgel your brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating. Even if you hit its back with a stick, it will walk slowly,” the gravedigger said. “But when you are asked this question next time, answer ‘a gravedigger.’ Why? Because the houses that he makes last until Doomsday. Go, get you to Yaughan the bartender. Fetch me a tankard of liquor.”

The gravedigger’s friend departed.

The gravedigger sang as he dug, punctuating the song with the grunts of working:

In youth, when I did love, did love,

I thought it was very sweet,

To contract[grunt] the time, for[grunt] my advantage,

Oh, I thought, there[grunt] was nothing[grunt] meet.”

“Has this fellow no respect for his occupation? Doesn’t he realize that he is singing while he digs a grave?” Hamlet asked Horatio.

“He has grown accustomed to graves, and so he is free and easy around them,” Horatio said.

“That is true,” Hamlet said. “The hand that does little work is more sensitive because it is not calloused. People who do not have to work for a living can afford to be sensitive.”

The Gravedigger sang these verses:

But age, with his stealing steps,

Has clawed me in his clutch,

And has shipped me back into the land,

As if I had never been born.”

The gravedigger threw a skull out of the grave he was digging.

Hamlet said, “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. Look at how the knave jowls — throws — it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone. Cain did the first murder: According to folk tradition, he used the jawbone of an ass to kill Abel, his brother.”

Hamlet thought, Now an ass is wielding the jawbone of Cain.

Hamlet continued, “This skull might be the head of a politician, a schemer, whom this ass now lords over as a benefit of his office. This skull may have belonged to a schemer who would have circumvented God, might it not?”

The first schemer was Cain, who in Genesis 4:9 would not give God a straight answer: “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

“It might be, my lord,” Horatio replied to Hamlet.

“Or it might be the skull of a courtier, who could once say, ‘Good morning, sweet lord! How are you, good lord?’ This might be the skull of my Lord Such-a-one, who praised my Lord Such-another-one’s horse, when he meant to borrow it, might it not?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Why, that’s right,” Hamlet said. “And it might be the skull of my Lady Worm. It now lacks a lower jaw, and it is knocked about with a gravedigger’s spade.

“Here’s a fine alteration in fortune, a movement of the Wheel of Fortune, if we had the ability to see it. Was the cost of bringing these bones to full maturity so little that we are justified in using them in throwing games? My bones ache when I think about that.”

The gravedigger sang these lines:

A pickaxe, and a spade, a spade,

And furthermore a shrouding sheet:

Oh, a pit of clay for to be made

For such a guest is meet.”

He threw another skull out of the hole he was digging.

Hamlet said, “There’s another skull. That might be the skull of a lawyer. Why not? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets — his subtleties and quibbles — his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he allow this rude knave now to knock him about the hole with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him that he is bringing a lawsuit against him for the crime of battering. Ha!

“The fellow whose skull this is might have been in his time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries — and his all that other legal mumbo-jumbo.

“Is this the fine, aka end, of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine, aka handsome, pate full of fine, aka finely ground, dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones, too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The documents for his lands will hardly lie in this box — his legal deeds will hardly fit in his grave, which is now his deed-box. He used to own all those properties, but now all he has is a grave.”

“A grave, and not a jot more, my lord,” Horatio said.

“Is not parchment made of sheepskins?” Hamlet asked.

“Yes, my lord, and of calfskins, too.”

“Those who seek assurance in parchment are sheep and calves — they are fools.”

He added, “I will speak to this fellow.”

He said to the gravedigger, “Whose grave is this?”

“Mine, sir,” the gravedigger answered.

He sang, “Oh, a pit of clay for to be made

For such a guest is meet.”

“I think it is your grave, indeed,” Hamlet said, “because you lie in it.”

Hamlet and the gravedigger began to pun on two meanings of “lie” — “tell an untruth” versus “lie down.”

“You lie out of it, sir, and therefore it is not yours,” the gravedigger replied. “As for my part, I do not lie in it, and yet it is mine.”

The gravedigger would not lie down permanently in the grave, but it was his grave to dig.

“You do lie in it because you are in it and you say it is yours,” Hamlet said. “This grave is for the dead, not for the quick; therefore, you lie.”

“It is a quick and lively lie, sir,” the gravedigger said. “It will go away again — from me to you. If I am lying, then you are lying.”

The gravedigger was punning on two meanings of “quick” — “be fast” versus “be alive.”

“Who is the man for whom you are digging this grave?” Hamlet asked.

“I am digging it for no man, sir.”

“For which woman, then?”

“For no woman, either.”

“Who is to be buried in it?”

“One who was a woman, sir, but rest her soul, she’s dead.”

Hamlet said to Horatio, “How strict in his use of language this knave is! We must speak as carefully as if we were navigating at sea, or equivocation will undo us.

“By the Lord, Horatio, for the past three years I have taken a note of it; people nowadays have grown so refined and finicky and picky that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier that the peasant kicks the sore on the heel of the courtier.”

Hamlet asked the gravedigger, “How long have you been a grave-maker?”

“Of all the days in the year, I came to be a gravedigger on that day that our most recent King Hamlet fought and defeated old Fortinbras.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Don’t you know that?” the gravedigger asked. “Every fool knows that. It was the very day that young Hamlet was born — the young Hamlet who is mad, and who was sent to England.”

“Why was he sent to England?” Hamlet asked.

“Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there, or if he does not, it’s no great matter there.”


“His madness will not even be noticed in England,” the gravedigger said. “The men of England are as mad as Hamlet.”

“How did he become mad?”

“Very strangely, they say.”

“How strangely?”

“By losing his wits.”

“For what reason? Upon what ground?”

“Upon what ground? Why, here in Denmark,” the gravedigger replied. “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.”

“How long will a man lie in the earth before he rots?”

“Assuming that he is not rotting before he dies — we have many diseased corpses nowadays that will hardly keep together before they are buried — he will last you some eight or nine years. A tanner will last you nine years.”

“Why does he take longer to rot than another corpse?”

“Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great long while,” the gravedigger said. “Water is a grievous decayer of a nasty dead body.”

He picked up a skull and said, “Look at this skull now; this skull has lain in the earth twenty-three years.”

“Whose skull was it?” Hamlet asked.

“A whoreson mad fellow’s it was,” the gravedigger replied. “Whose do you think it was?”

“I don’t know.”

“May a pestilence fall on him because of his being a mad rogue!” the gravedigger said. “He poured a glass of Rhine wine on my head once. This same skull, sir, was the skull of Yorick, the King’s jester.”

“This skull?”


“Let me see it,” Hamlet said.

The gravedigger gave Hamlet the skull.

Holding it, Hamlet said, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. He was a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent imagination. He carried me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorrent in my imagination it is to realize that this is his skull! I feel ready to vomit. Here used to be those lips that I kissed I don’t know how often. Where are your jokes now, Yorick? Where are your gambols? Where are your songs? Where are your flashes of merriment that used to make the people sitting at the table roar with laughter? No one is now ready to mock your own grinning? Are you quite down in the mouth?

“Now go to a lady’s chamber, and tell her that although she paints on her makeup an inch thick, to this — a grinning skull — she must at last come; make her laugh at that.

“Please, Horatio, tell me something.”

“What, my lord?”

“Do you think that Alexander the Great, conqueror of all the world that was known to him, looked like this when he was in the earth?”

“Yes, I am sure that he did.”

“Did he smell like this? Ugh!”

Hamlet put down the skull.

“Yes, I am sure that he did, my lord.”

“To what base uses we may return when we die, Horatio!” Hamlet said. Why, can’t my reason trace the noble dust of Alexander from the time of his burial until it stops up a bung-hole — a hole from which liquid is poured from a cask or barrel?”

“To think that is to think too much about it.”

“No, indeed, not a jot,” Hamlet said. “We can trace his journey without excessive ingenuity; we can trace what is likely and reasonable. We are made of dust, and to dust we return. Alexander the Great died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned to dust. The dust is earth; of earth we make loam, which we use to make bricks and stoppers; of that loam, whereof Alexander’s dust is an ingredient, might they not make a stopper for a beer-barrel?

“Imperious Julius Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole in a wall to keep the wind away. Oh, that that earth, which stormed the world, should patch a wall to expel the winter storm!

“But let’s be quiet! Let’s be quiet! Let’s stand aside and out of the way. Here comes the King.”

A funeral procession entered the graveyard. The procession consisted of a priest, the corpse of Ophelia, Laertes, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, a priest, and others.

Hamlet said, “I see the Queen, the courtiers, but whose corpse is this whom they follow? And with such truncated rites? This shows that the corpse they are following did with desperate hand take its own life. Because of the mourners, I can see that the corpse was highborn.

“Let us hide here for awhile, and watch.”

Hamlet and Horatio hid themselves.

Laertes asked, “What other funeral rites can be performed?”

Hamlet said to Horatio, “That is Laertes, a very noble youth. Look and listen.”

Again, Laertes asked, “What other funeral rites can be performed?”

The priest replied, “I have performed her obsequies as far as I am permitted. Her death was suspicious. If not for the King’s command, she would have been buried in unsanctified ground and have stayed there until the sound of the last trumpet on the Day of Judgment. Instead of charitable prayers being said over her corpse, shards of pottery, flints, and pebbles would have been thrown on her. However, she has been allowed to have her virgin’s garland, flowers strewn on her maiden’s grave, the bell rung as she was carried to her grave, and a few other burial rites.”

“Can’t anything else be done for her?” Laertes asked.

“No more can be done,” the priest said. “We would profane the service of the dead if for her we were to sing a solemn Mass and do other things we do for peacefully departed souls.”

“Lay her in the earth,” Laertes said, “and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring! I tell you, churlish priest, that my sister shall be a ministering angel while you lie howling in Hell.”

Hamlet realized whose corpse was being buried: “What, the beautiful Ophelia!”

Queen Gertrude scattered flowers and said, “Sweets to the sweet. Farewell! I hoped that you would be my Hamlet’s wife. I thought that I would strew your bride-bed and not your grave with flowers, sweet maiden.”

“May treble woe fall ten times treble on that cursed head whose wicked deed deprived you of your most ingenious sense,” Laertes said. “Don’t throw earth on her corpse just yet. Wait until I have held her once more in my arms.”

He jumped into the grave and said, “Now pile your dust upon the living and dead, until you have made a mountain on this flat area — a mountain higher than old Mount Pelion, or the blue, sky-reaching head of Mount Olympus.”

Hamlet came forward and said, “Who is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? Who is he whose phrases of sorrow conjures the wandering planets, and makes them stand still like wonder-wounded hearers?

“This is I: Hamlet the Dane.”

By calling himself “Hamlet the Dane,” Hamlet was asserting his right to the throne. “Hamlet the Dane” meant “Hamlet, rightful ruler of Denmark.”

Hamlet thought that Laertes was deliberately showing excessive grief, something that Hamlet considered to be the equivalent of a rhetorician’s trick.

Laertes climbed out of the grave and said to Hamlet, “May the Devil take your soul!”

Laertes began to grapple with Hamlet, who said, “You are not praying well. Please, take your fingers away from my throat. Although I am not irascible and rash, yet I have something dangerous in me that you in your wisdom ought to fear. Keep your hands off me.”

King Claudius ordered his attendants, “Separate them.”

Queen Gertrude said, “Hamlet, Hamlet!”

A number of people began to speak, “Gentlemen —”

Horatio said to Hamlet, “My good lord, be calm.”

The attendants separated Hamlet and Laertes.

“I will fight Laertes upon this theme until my eyelids can no longer move,” Hamlet said. “I will fight him until the least sign of life has left my body.”

“Oh, my son, what theme do you mean?” Queen Gertrude asked.

“Love for Ophelia,” Hamlet replied. “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up the sum of the love I felt for her.”

Hamlet then said, “Laertes, what will you do for her?”

King Claudius said, “Hamlet is mad, Laertes.”

“Laertes, for the love of God,” Queen Gertrude said, “have patience with Hamlet.”

“By God’s wounds,” Hamlet said to Laertes, “show me what you will do. Will you weep? Will you fight? Will you fast? Will you hurt yourself? Will you drink bitter vinegar? Will you eat a crocodile? Whatever you say that you will do, I will actually do it.

“Did you come here to whine? To outdo my love for Ophelia by leaping in her grave? If you will be buried alive with her, then so will I. And, if you prate about mountains, let them throw millions of acres on us, until our ground, singeing its top against the burning Sun, makes Mount Ossa look like a wart! If you rant with your mouth, I’ll rant as well as you.”

“This is a display of Hamlet’s madness,” Queen Gertrude said. “And thus for awhile the fit will work on him, but soon he will droop and be silent. He will be as patient as the female dove when her nestlings, covered with golden-yellow down, hatch out of their eggs.”

Hamlet said to Laertes, “Sir, listen to me. What is the reason that you are treating me this way? I have always respected you. But it does not matter. No matter how hard he tries, even Hercules can’t keep cats from meowing — and the dog will have its day.”

Hamlet exited.

King Claudius said, “Please, Horatio, go with him and look after him.”

Horatio followed Hamlet.

King Claudius said quietly to Laertes so that Queen Gertrude did not hear, “Strengthen your patience by remembering what we talked about last night. We will put our plan into action quickly. Ophelia’s grave shall have a long-lasting monument. We will have an hour of quiet, and then we will put our plan into action. Until then, be patient.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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