In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, contrast plays a major role. Characters have
foils, scenes and ideas contrast each other, sometimes within the same soliloquy.
One such contrast occurs in Act Five, Scene One, in the graveyard. Here, the
relatively light mood in the first half is offset by the grave and somber mood
in the second half.
The scene opens with two "clowns", who function as a sort of comic relief.
This is necessary, after the tension of Ophelia's breakdown (and subsequent death),
and after the ever-increasing complexities of the plot. Previously, Polonious provided
some humour, but since he is dead, a new source must be found - the gravediggers.
Their banter becomes the calm before the storm of the duel, and the play's resolution.
There is also a juxtaposition of the clowns and the graveyard here, which further
intensifies the effect. The clowns chatter about their work in a carefree manner,
even going so far as to play with a riddle ( " What is he that builds stronger ...
carpenter" V,1,41-42). Shakespeare even went so far as to include his puns in this
grave scene (V,1,120).
Hamlet himself experiences a temporary lightening of mood from listening to the
gravediggers' conversation. Their carefree treatment of death singing while digging
graves, not to mention tossing skulls in the air) is a parallel to Hamlet's
newfound attitude. After having committed himself to his cause in Act IV, he is no
longer bothered by the paradox of good and evil, and (seemingly) is untroubled by
his previous misgivings.
Hamlet's musings on the equality of all men in death serve as a transition into
the darker second half of the scene. His contemplations on death reflect Act IV,
Scene 3, when Hamlet gives voice to a humorous notion concerning " how a king
may progress through the guts of a beggar " (IV,3,27-28). Hamlet expands on this
idea with his thoughts on how even Alexander the Great or " Imperious Caesar "
may descend to such base uses as stopping a beer barrel, or stopping " a hole
to keep the wind away " (V,1,207)
The entrance of Ophelia's funeral procession marks the beginning of the second
half, which balances the humor of the previous portion. The graveyard now takes
on its more traditional role, as a place of grief, rather than a place of drollery.
Laertes's words, understandably, contain references to Hell, and also hold
no particular benevolence for Hamlet.
The tension of the scene is further heightened by the confrontation which breaks
out between Hamlet and Laertes. This altercation foreshadows the final duel
between the pair. The gloom of the scene is also furthered by the circumstances
surrounding Ophelia's death. The questionable suicide of someone's mad sister
is more depressing than the death of someone's sister who died saving children
from a fire.
Act Five, Scene one is but one example of Shakespeare's use of contrast in Hamlet, though there are some features that make this scene particularly unique. The juxtaposition of the clowns and the graveyard within the larger juxtaposition of the humorous first half and the somber second half is one of these distinguishing characteristics. This is also where the reader (or the audience) sees Hamlet's recent attitude of resignation for the first time. Hamlet's brush with mortality on the high seas as well as his elusion of the headsman's axe have given him a new perspective
on the ideas which previously consumed his thoughts.
In conclusion, the comedy and tragedy of Act Five, Scene One balance each other, but also serve distinct purposes. The dark humor of the first half provides a relaxation of the atmosphere, much needed after Ophelia's death and the complexities of the plot. The banter of the gravediggers furnishes the audience with a dramatic pause before the final ascent into the play's resolution. The tense grief of the second segment gives the audience an insight into Hamlet's character (through his expression of love for Ophelia), and also provides foreshadowing of the play's final duel. When combined into a single scene, these elements breathe an extraordinary life into Hamlet.