Act V, Scene i

Synopsis of Hamlet Act V scene i

In a graveyard near the castle a grave is being prepared for Ophelia's body. Although she is thought to have committed suicide, she is, by royal command, to be buried in holy ground.

Hamlet is given the skull of YorickHamlet enters on his way back to the castle; he has been met by Horatio. Neither of them knows about Ophelia's death. Hamlet approaches the gravedigger, who comes across the skull of Yorick, who was Old Hamlet's jester when Hamlet was a boy. This leads Hamlet to contemplate the death and decay of the human body, inevitable even for kings and emperors.

The funeral procession arrives. Laertes is bitter that there is to be little religious ceremonial. It is only as Hamlet hears Laertes referring to his sister that he realises the identity of the corpse.

Laertes leaps into Ophelia's open grave, and Hamlet rushes forward, leaping in too and protesting his undying love for Ophelia. The two men struggle and are separated. As Hamlet leaves, Claudius promises Laertes that he will not have to wait long for revenge.

Commentary on Hamlet Act V scene i

Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willingly seeks her own salvation? — as with many comments by the gravediggers, Shakespeare uses humour (in this case the lack of religious understanding of the gravedigger) to make serious points. Normally the very fact that one sought salvation would be a reason to receive a Christian burial, but the speaker is here using the phrase as a euphemism for ‘brings about her own death'.

As if it were Cain's jaw-bone that did the first murder — Cain was cursed by God for murdering his brother, and, as we have seen, the murder of Old Hamlet by Claudius has been viewed in this light by Claudius himself.

More on the fate of Cain: It is significant in this context of a revenge-play, however, that in the account of Cain's sin in Genesis 4:8-12 of the Old Testament, God specifically bans any human being from seeking vengeance against Cain. (For further information see Big ideas: Cain and Abel.)

That day our last king Hamlet o'ercame Fortinbras — Hamlet was born on this day 30 years before. His life, and the feud between Norway and Denmark, leading young Fortinbras to seek revenge, began at the same moment. Hamlet's whole existence is linked to a parallel with, and contrast to, young Fortinbras.

Get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come — nothing can prevent the human body from ageing, dying and decaying. We must all accept our inevitable mortality.

More on make-up: The image of face-painting (make-up) as part of the theme of false appearances has been used elsewhere in the play (see Act II scene i, by Claudius, and in the same scene by Hamlet to Ophelia). (See Themes and significant ideas: False appearances).

She should in ground unsanctified have lodged / Till the last trumpet — as someone who has, the priest asserts, committed suicide, Ophelia would not be entitled to be buried in sanctified ground (ground blessed by the Church). The last trumpet will be blown to signify the end of the world, at Doomsday: a reminder of the judgement of humans by God after death (see Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement).

This is I, Hamlet the Dane — at this critical moment, Hamlet powerfully asserts his right to be the king of Denmark (c.f. Claudius' comment about speaking ‘reason to the Dane' — by which he meant himself — in Act I scene ii).

More on Hamlet's determination: This assertion and his leap into the grave, suggests that Hamlet can now act when needed, as well as reflect and philosophise.

Investigating Hamlet Act V scene i

  • This is the first time we have seen Hamlet since his return. Look again at how he behaves in this scene:
    • How would you assess Hamlet's words, manner and actions here?
    • Would you agree with some critics who feel that he has changed and has returned with renewed confidence?
  • Hamlet insists that his love for Ophelia infinitely exceeds that of Laertes.
    • If that is so, why might he have treated her so harshly in Act III scene i?
  • Instead of simply having characters discuss death, Shakespeare presents us with both the grave of a newly-dead young person (into which the living leap) and the bones of the long-dead.
    • What ideas is Shakespeare trying to present here?
    • How does the ‘stage picture' strengthen his presentation of these ideas?
    • Consider also the use of a play-within-a play in Act III to present ideas about false appearances and acting.
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