Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Summary of Act V, Scene 1

In the churchyard, two gravediggers are at work digging a grave. It is for Ophelia, and they discuss whether or not Ophelia should have the benefit of a Christian burial, since she committed suicide. They banter back and forth about whether Ophelia’s death “counts” as a suicide and note that gravediggers build the strongest “houses” of all, since the graves they dig last until the end of the world.

Horatio and Hamlet enter and watch the gravediggers at work. As the gravediggers work, they unearth the skulls of people who have been buried in the same churchyard in the past. Hamlet looks at these various skulls and muses on what their owners must have done during their lives.

Hamlet then asks the gravedigger whose grave he is digging. The gravedigger answers with riddles: first, he says it is his own grave because he is the one digging it, therefore the hole “belongs” to him; second, he says it belongs to no woman or man, since women and men are living creatures and graves are for the dead. Finally, he says it belongs to someone “that was a woman,” but now she is dead.

Hamlet asks how long the gravedigger has had his job; the gravedigger responds that he started work on the day the late king first defeated Fortinbras, the same day Hamlet was born. Hamlet picks up one of the discarded skulls, and the gravedigger tells him the skull once belonged to Yorick, the old king’s jester. Hamlet is appalled to find himself holding Yorick’s skull, since he knew Yorick when Hamlet himself was a child and remembers him fondly. Hamlet realizes that everyone dies, even great historical figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and that their bodies disintegrate just like anyone else’s.

Just then, Ophelia’s funeral procession enters the churchyard, and Hamlet and Horatio hide themselves from sight. Hamlet notes how the procession looks “maimed,” which indicates the dead person committed suicide. He only realizes the funeral is for Ophelia when her body is laid into the grave.

While Hamlet is making these observations, Laertes blows up at the priest, who has said that it would profane the dead to give Ophelia, a suicide case, a proper Christian burial. He leaps into Ophelia’s grave and holds her corpse in his arms. Overwhelmed by fury and grief, Hamlet crashes the funeral, declaring his own love for Ophelia. He jumps into the grave to fight Laertes, insisting that no one could have loved Ophelia as much as he did – he even swears he would be buried alive with her in order to prove his love.

The funeral party breaks up the fight, and Claudius and Gertrude try to explain Hamlet’s behavior away as madness. Hamlet leaves, followed by Horatio, while the king urges Laertes to be patient and stick with the plan to kill Hamlet.

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