Scene 1, the beginning of the most serious act in the play, begins as a comedy.
Two gravediggers have a very funny exchange of words over the circumstances
of Ophelia's death. The Gravedigger's manner of speaking is typical of Shakespearean
clowns, who use words that at first seem inappropriate or simply to have been
mistaken for other words but which nonetheless suggest some unexpectedly appropriate
Hamlet, for the only time in the play, meets his match verbally in the Gravedigger,
whose puns and double-talk are as confusing to Hamlet as Hamlet's have been
to everybody else.
While talking with Horatio, they see a funeral procession. The two conceal
themselves and look on at the passage of Ophelia's funeral train, led by Laertes,
pompously bewailing his dead sister. Unable to endure such a false and pretentious
display, Hamlet leaps out of hiding and lunges toward Laertes. Both men seem
restrained, but not until after the challenge to duel was made - and accepted.
To diminish suspicion that he was in any way involved with the plot, King
Claudius bet heavily on the practiced swordsman Hamlet. Then, according to
plan, poison was dripped onto Laertes' rapier and into the convenient cup.
But things soon begin to miscarry. First the unsuspecting Gertrude raises
and drinks from the poison-laced cup in a toast to her son. In the contest
that follows, Laertes wounds Hamlet, and Hamlet in turn fatally pierces Laertes.
Then, as the queen falls to the ground crying, "The drink, the drink!
I am poison'd!" Hamlet demands that the treachery be revealed.
At this, dying Laertes speaks up and exposes the plot - the poisoned wine
and the venom-tipped foil, whose effects Hamlet would soon feel. Laertes further
divulges that "the King's to blame": Claudius had authored the entire
miserable scene. Hesitating no longer, Hamlet rushes forward, stabs Claudius,
and curses the "incestuous, murderous, damn'd Dane." Then Laertes
and Hamlet turn and implore each other's forgiveness, that they might both
die in peace.
Within minutes, Fortinbras arrived, and, with Hamlet's dying approval, appropriates
the throne of Denmark - a throne so tragically twice vacated in the previous
One could read Hamlet simply, simplistically even, as a revenge tragedy.
Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, is killed by his brother, Claudius,
who, overriding the rights of succession, appropriates both the crown and
the wife of Hamlet's father. The ghost of the father reveals everything to
his son, and all the elements of the revenge tragedy are in place: Hamlet
has an obligation to avenge the murder, the usurpation, and the adultery.
This he does by killing Claudius at the end of the play.
However it is clear that the theme of vengeance is merely a vehicle used
by Shakespeare in order to articulate a whole series of themes central to
humanity: relationships between father and son, mother and son, and Hamlet
and his friends, love relationships, power wielding, madness, feigned madness,
dissembling youth and age, action and inaction, corrupt power and power corrupting
the most significant existential questions; the existence of a god; 'to be
or not to be'; 'if it be now...'.
the meaning and possibilities of stagecraft.
All these themes, as well as others, are found in Hamlet. However, it is
important to remember that Hamlet himself is at the center of everything,
and it is on him that all the great themes are focused.
There is no other character in literature so rich, so complex, so enigmatic,
and at once so opaque and transparent.