In a graveyard just outside the walls of Elsinore two gravediggers were starting a new job. One of them confessed himself to be puzzled by the circumstances of this particular burial.
‘But is she going to be buried in Christian burial when she’s willfully sought her own salvation?’ he asked his partner.
‘I told you she is, and so make her grave straight. The coroner hath sat on ‘er and finds it Christian burial.’
The first grave digger thrust his spade into the ground, moved a spadeful of earth then stopped and leant on the spade. ‘How can that be? Unless she drowned herself in her own defence.’ He chuckled.
The second man moved three spadefuls before replying. ‘Because ‘tis found so.’ He didn’t stop his digging.
‘Hmm,’ said the first. ‘It must be self offendendo, it cannot be else. For here lies the point. If I drown myself knowingly it argues an act, and an act hath three branches: it is to act, to do, to perform: argal, she drowned herself knowingly.’
The second labourer nodded towards his partner’s spade. ‘Nay, but hear you, good man delver…’ he said.
The first digger wasn’t satisfied yet. ‘Give me leave.’ He placed a stone on the ground. ‘Here lies the water: good.’ He placed another stone beside it. ‘Here stands the man: good: if the man go to this water,’ pointing between the two, ‘and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes, mark you that: but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.’
‘But is this the law?’
‘Ay, of course is’t. Crowner’s quest law.’ Having made his point he bent over his spade.
They made some progress, then the second digger stopped. ‘Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial.’
They were up to their knees in the grave, now. The first man turned. ‘Why, there thou say’st: and the more pity that great folk should have the right in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than your more ordinary Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession.’
‘Was he a gentleman?’
The first digger assured him of that: ‘He was the first that ever bore arms.’
‘Why, he had none!’
‘What. Are you a heathen? How do you understand the scripture? The scripture says ‘Adam digged’: could he dig without arms?’ The man threw his head back and laughed, although he other wasn’t quite as amused. ‘I’ll put another question to you. If you answer me not to the purpose, confess yourself…’
‘What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?’
‘The gallows-maker: for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.’
The first digger nodded his appreciation. ‘I like your wit well, in good faith,’ he said. ‘The gallows does well: but how does it well? it does well to those that do ill: now you do ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to you. To’t again, come.’
‘Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?’
‘Ay, tell me that then you can stop work.’
‘I’ve got it!’
The second digger’s face clouded over. ‘Damn! I haven’t got it.’
Horatio had gone with all speed to meet Hamlet and had accompanied him back to Elsinore. They asked the coachman to stop before reaching the castle so that they could walk in the fine morning, and they took the path through the graveyard. Two grave diggers were busy at their trade and the friends ambled towards them.
The first digger was tired of the riddle game. His workmate was too dull-witted for it. ‘Cudgel your brains no more about it,’ he said, ‘for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating: and, when you are asked this question next, say a grave-maker: the houses that he makes last till doomsday. Go, get thee to Yaughan: fetch me a stoup of liquor.’
The second digger threw his spade aside and scrambled out of the grave. The first man seemed quite happy to work on his own and began to sing, rhythmically, in time with his digging:
‘In youth, when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet,
To contract, O, the time, for, ah, my behove,
O, methought, there was nothing meet.
‘Has this fellow no sensitivity, that he sings while grave making?’ said Hamlet.
‘You get hardened to things like this,’ said Horatio.
‘That’s true. Those who aren’t employed are more sensitive.’
The grave digger hadn’t noticed them and continued lustily with his vigorous singing and digging.
‘But age, with his stealing steps,
Hath claw’d me in his clutch,
And hath shipped me intil the land,
As if I had never been such.’
A skull came flying up out of the grave and landed near Hamlet and Horatio.
‘That skull once had a tongue in it and could sing,’ said Hamlet. ‘Look how that knave dashes it to the ground as though it were Cain, the first murderer’s jaw-bone. It might be the head of a schemer, one who spent his life trying to outwit God, that this ass is overseeing, mightn’t it?’
‘It might, my lord.’
‘Or a courtier who could say “Good morning, sweet lord! How are you, good lord?” It might be my lord such-and-such who praised my lord such-and-such’s horse when his real intention was to borrow it, mightn’t it?’
Horatio nodded again. ‘Yes, my lord.’
The gravedigger was still singing:
‘In youth, when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet,
To contract, O, the time, for, ah, my behove,
O, methought, there was nothing meet.’
He threw another skull up.
‘There’s another!’ said Hamlet. ‘Mightn’t that be the skull of a lawyer? Where are his subtleties, his quibbles, his cases, his tenures and his tricks now? Why does he allow this rude knave to knock him about the head with a dirty shovel without threatening action for battery? Hum! In his time this fellow might have been a great buyer of land, what with his mortgages, his bonds, his fines, his guarantees and his warrants. Is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries- to have his fine head crammed with fine earth. All his paperwork couldn’t fit into his grave! No space for him then, ha?’
‘None, my lord,’ said Horatio.
‘Isn’t parchment made of sheepskin?’ said Hamlet.
‘Yes, my lord, and calf-skin too.’
‘They are sheep and calves who rely on parchment. I want to talk to this fellow.’ Hamlet went to the edge of the grave and called down: ‘Who’s grave is this sirrah?’
The man didn’t pause in his rhythm and Hamlet stepped back to avoid the flying earth. ‘Mine, sir,’ he said.
‘O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.’
‘I think it’s mine, actually,’ said Hamlet, ‘because you’re lying in it.’
The digger stopped then. He had found someone more attuned to his sharp wit than his workmate was. ‘You lie out of it, sir, and therefore it is not yours. I do not lie in it and yet it is mine.’
Hamlet was enjoying it too. ‘You do lie in it, to be in it and say it’s yours: it’s for the dead, not the quick: therefore you’re lying.’
‘Tis a quick lie, sir: ’twill away again, from me to you.’
‘What man are you digging it for?’
‘For no man, sir.’
‘What woman then?’
‘For none, neither.’
‘Who is to be buried in it then?’
‘One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her soul, she’s dead.’
‘How pedantic the knave is!’ exclaimed Hamlet. ‘We must speak with precision or ambiguity will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio! I’ve noticed in the past three years that society has become very educated. Indeed, the toes of the peasant are so close to the heel of the courtier that they tread their corns. How long have you been a gravedigger?’
‘Of all the days i’ the year, I came to’t that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born: he that is mad, and sent into England.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Hamlet. ‘Why was he sent to England?’
‘Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there: or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.’
‘’Twill, not be seen in him there: there the men are as mad as he.’
‘How did he go mad?’
‘Very strangely, they say.’
‘In what way, strangely?’
‘Faith, e’en with losing his wits.’
‘On what ground?’
‘Why, here in Denmark: I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.’
‘How long will it take a man to rot in the earth?’
‘I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die – as we have many pocky corpses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.’
‘Why he more than any other?’
‘Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while: and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.’ The gravedigger reached down and offered Hamlet another skull.
‘Here’s a skull now: this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.’
‘Whose was it?’ said Hamlet.
‘A whoreson mad fellow’s it was: whose do you think it was?’
Hamlet couldn’t be expected to know. ‘No, I don’t know.’
‘A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a’ poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.’
Hamlet took a greater interest in it. ‘This?’ he said.
Hamlet picked the skull up and held it in front of him. He sighed. ‘Poor Yorick,’ he said. ‘I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of great humour, a wonderful imagination. He carried me on his back a thousand times. And now! How horrible to think about it: my stomach heaves at it. He traced a finger across the grinning teeth. Those lips that I kissed, I can’t guess how many times, hung here. Where are your jibes now? Your playfulness? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that used to set the table roaring? Not one of them left to mock your ginning? Quite down in the mouth? Now get to my mother’s room and tell her, though she paint her face an inch thick, she must eventually come to this. Make her laugh at that! Tell me something, Horatio.’
‘What’s that, my lord?’
‘Do you think Alexander looked like this in the earth?’
‘Exactly like this.’
Hamlet sniffed the skull. ‘And smelt like this? Pah!’
‘Exactly like this, my lord.’
‘What a basic condition we return to, Horatio,’ said Hamlet. ‘Why! Couldn’t imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he finds it being used as a stopper in a beer barrel?’
‘I think that would be a bit too far fetched,’ said Horatio.
‘No, not at all,’ said Hamlet, ‘ if you do it logically. It goes like this: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned to dust, the dust is earth: we make loam of earth and that loam into which he was converted, might it not be used to stop a beer barrel?
Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw.’
The grave digger had finished and the new grave waited. His workmate had returned with the wine and they sat a little away from the grave to wait. A funeral procession, led by a priest, some attendants carrying a body and, after that, and a surprise to Hamlet, his mother and his uncle! He put a hand on Horatio’s arm.
‘Wait! Wait!’ he said. ‘Here comes the king.’ He gestured to Horatio to stand behind a tree with him so that the funeral party wouldn’t see them. The king, the queen, the courtiers… But who were they following? And with such reduced rites. It suggested that the corpse they were following had killed itself. But it must have been of a high rank. ‘Let’s hide here for a while and watch,’ he told Horatio.
One of the young noblemen appealed to the priest. He seemed bewildered. ‘What more ceremony is there than this?’ he said.
‘That’s Laertes,’ whispered Hamlet. ‘A very noble youth. Watch.’
‘No other ceremony?’ said Laertes.
‘Her funeral has been enlarged as far as the warrant permits,’ the priest told him. ‘The nature of her death was doubtful. If it were not for official overruling this wouldn’t have occurred at all and her body would have been interred in unsanctified ground until judgement day. Rather than charitable prayers, shards of pottery, flint and pebbles should have been cast on her resting place. Yet here she is allowed her virgin’s garlands and her floral tributes and the use of the bell in the service.’
Laertes was getting angry. ‘Is nothing more allowed?
‘Nothing more,’ the priest said. ‘We would profane the service of the dead if we sang a solemn requiem and put her to rest with the souls who died in peace.’
‘Lay her in the earth, then,’ said Laertes. ‘And may violets spring from her fair and unpolluted flesh.’ He shook his finger in the priest’s face. ‘Let me tell you something, churlish priest! My sister will be a ministering angel when you are in hell!’
Hamlet was astonished. It was Ophelia!
The attendants lay her body in the grave. Gertrude came forward and scattered flowers into it.
‘Sweets to the sweet,’ she said, ‘farewell. I hoped you would have been my Hamlet’s wife. I was expecting to decorate your bridal bed, dear maiden, not strew your grave.’
Laertes went to the rim of the grave and gazed down. The grave diggers leant on their spades, ready to fill the grave in. ‘Oh, a thirty fold curse on the head of him whose wicked deed has brought you to this!’ said Laertes. He stopped the gravediggers. ‘Hold the earth off awhile,’ he said, ‘Till I’ve held her in my arms once more.’ He leapt into the grave and lifted her, hugging her. ‘Now pile your dust on living and dead,’ he shouted, ‘till you’ve made a mountain higher than old Pelion or Olympus out of this flat piece of earth.’
Hamlet joined the funeral group, then. Horatio came up behind him. Hamlet called down into the grave. ‘Whose is this whose grief is so loud, so intense, that it attracts the attention of the stars?’ Then, jumping into the grave he shouted, ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane!’
Laertes lay Ophelia down and grabbed Hamlet by the throat. ‘The devil take your soul,’ he cried.
They struggled. ‘That’s a sad prayer,’ gasped Hamlet. ‘Get your hands off my throat! I may not be hot-headed and rash but there’s something dangerous in me that you’d do well to fear.’
Laertes pulled his fist back to strike and Hamlet blocked it. ‘Hold your hand!’ he said.
‘Pull them apart,’ Claudius told two Swiss guardsmen.
The guards also jumped into the grave and got between them.
‘Hamlet, Hamlet!’ Gertrude pleaded.
The courtiers were rushing about in a state of shock. ‘Gentlemen!’ they said. ‘Gentlemen!’
Horatio appealed to Hamlet, too. ‘Calm down, my good lord,’ he said.
The guards finally managed to get them back onto the level ground, where they glared at each other.
‘I’ll fight him on this matter until I’m dead,’ said Hamlet.
‘Oh my son, what matter?’ said Gertrude.
‘I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers’ love combined could not make up my total.’ He turned fiercely on Laertes and the guard stopped him before he could make physical contact. ‘What would you do for her?’ he demanded.
‘Oh he’s mad, Laertes,’ said Claudius.
‘Leave him alone, for God’s sake!’ exclaimed Gertrude as Hamlet tried to attack Laertes again.
But Hamlet would not let it go. He tried to break through the guard and continued to shout. ‘Come on! Show me what you would do! Will you weep, will you fight, will you fast, will you wound yourself, will you drink vinegar, eat a crocodile? I will! Did you come here to whine and upstage me by leaping into her grave? Be buried alive with her and so will I. And if you prattle on about mountains then let them throw millions of acres on top of us until their peak is scorched by the sun, making Mount Ossa look like a wart! Go on, whatever you rant about I can do as well.’
‘This is nothing but madness,’ said Gertrude. ‘This fit will work on him for a while and then he will become as calm as a dove.’
Hamlet hadn’t finished yet, although his tone was becoming more reasonable. ‘Listen, sir,’ he said. ‘Why are you treating me like this? I’ve always loved you. But it doesn’t matter. Regardless of what Hercules may say, the cat will mew and the dog will have his day.’ He strode off.
‘Look after him, good Horatio’ said Claudius.
Horatio hurried after his friend.
Claudius went close to Laertes. ‘About our conversation last night,’ he said. ‘Be patient. We’ll arrange it immediately.’
He went back to his wife. ‘Good Gertrude, put a watch on your son.’ Then, with a smile, to the assembled mourners. ‘This grave shall have a tombstone. We’ll rest for an hour and attend to matters after that.’
Read other Hamlet scenes in modern English:
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 1
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 2
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 3
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 4
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 6
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 7
Read all of Shakespeare’s plays in modern English