by Jenny Farrell
William Shakespeare died four hundred years ago this month, on 23 April 1616. There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with his name. Shakespeare’s poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other.
How can this enduring and encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?
Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.
Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.
The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).
This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon: “When Adam delved and Eva span, who was then the gentleman?”*
Ball advocated social equality for all. The gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.”
The working people in this scene are given even more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.
The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.
The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.
Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger.
Hamlet is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.
The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.
At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.
When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death.
Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person—a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.
‘Setting right’ the times we live in
When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.
In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, even if their time has not yet come. In this episode, on the edges, even remote from the main plot, social inequality and human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to set right the time by revolutionary upheaval.
*These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam.
Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies is to be published shortly by Nuascéalta; the article above is taken from the April issue of the Irish monthly Socialist Voice, here.