Who is your favourite character from English literature and why?
By Jeremy Choo, Winner of the Connell Guides Essay Prize 2016
The fifth act of Hamlet opens with the image of a grimy figure, half-buried in soil. He sings a song and a parabolic shadow swings across the stage as his back arches to and fro. Known in the script as First Gravedigger or First Clown, he is an oddity in an already peculiar scene. Digging a grave for the recently-passed Ophelia, the gravedigger discusses with an assistant whether the deceased deserves a Christian burial after her apparent suicide. Hamlet enters, and the two engage in a battle of wits, resulting in our protagonist’s discovery of his beloved jester’s skull. Despite his brief appearance, the First Gravedigger is distinctly individual, and his discourses with his assistant and Hamlet address themes intrinsic to the play’s development. However, he is remarkable simply because he surprises us.
Why is the appearance of a cemetery so startling in a play whose sole concern is death? It is only in the final act that Shakespeare provides the audience with a concrete reminder of the lofty concepts over which Hamlet has been philosophising. I find the gravedigger’s comment
if he be not rotten before he die - as we
have many pocky courses nowadays, that will scarce
hold the laying in - he will last you some eight year
or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year
to cut deeper than any of Hamlet’s prior musings on the corruption of flesh. Hamlet’s call ‘O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew’ pales in comparison: the gravedigger’s morbid technicalities make Hamlet seem pretentious. Indeed, as the gravedigger throws skulls to the ground carelessly, Hamlet’s misgivings over the gravedigger’s behaviour, accusing him of being ‘one that would circumvent God’, are counterpointed with the gravedigger’s philosophy, who sings ‘a pit of clay for to be made/For such a guest is meet’: we are but the mud which carpets the ground. Hamlet is confronted with death’s grim reality: it is not a ‘sleep’ that is over in an instant, rather a lengthy process of decay. By showing Hamlet the true end-point, the play’s themes are given some basis in reality, thus changing the tone of the play. ‘To be or not to be’ ceases to be a question posed in a philosophical discussion, and is shown to be a real choice: the gravedigger brings death back down to earth. This is much-needed; Shakespeare’s brilliance lies in the unexpected form this takes.
These are ideas that have been communicated before - Gertrude commands Hamlet ‘seek for thy noble father in the dust’ - but it is only the gravedigger who presents a cogent case and makes the prince seem irrational. Where Gertrude and Claudius are insensitive to Hamlet, the gravedigger’s infallible logic urges the prince to see the truth of the matter. For example, he corrects Hamlet when saying that the grave he was digging was for no woman, but ‘one that was a woman’ - for once in the play, Hamlet has no comeback. Despite being dressed in an undertaker’s garb and speaking in a working-class tongue, the gravedigger offers Hamlet intellectual equivalency that the high-society Horatio, as indicated by his mindless recitations of ‘ay, my lord’, cannot offer him.
The gravedigger surprises us, but not himself. He has a brilliant arrogance, and is not afraid to outrightly challenge this travelling stranger, as can be seen in his battle of wits with Hamlet. At one point, the gravedigger shoots down Hamlet’s attempt to catch him out with a sharp quip: “’tis a quick lie, sir. ’Twill away again from me to you”. The gravedigger denies Hamlet’s taunts, as well as picking up on the prince’s earlier use of ‘quick’, and puns on it meaning both ‘alive’ and ‘fast’. Prior to this scene, Hamlet has demolished all challengers with his wit. However, the humble gravedigger gives as good as he gets. As Hamlet remarks to Horatio,
How absolute the knave is! We must speak by
the card, or equivocation will undo us.
The eloquence of the gravedigger’s ‘absolute’ language impresses and intimidates even Hamlet; the prince can no longer conceal himself through ambiguities. In an unsuspecting figure, we find a wonderfully silver-tongued rebuttal to Hamlet’s philosophy. Despite reciting Gertrude and Claudius’ remarks, the gravedigger has the charisma to win over Hamlet. As a teenager, I find myself naturally inclined to reject conventional figures of authority. The First Gravedigger represents the play’s streak of non-conformism: how impressive it is that the true noble is a manual labourer.
But the First Gravedigger is more than just a character who shares and can keep up with Hamlet in the wit and absurdities of his language. He explains that ‘I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’. In drawing emphasis to how his career has spanned both his childhood and adulthood, the gravedigger implies that he had no proper life before he started digging graves. Indeed, the day he started digging graves was the day that Hamlet was born. It is as if he is twinned with the prince. Shakespeare’s alignment of the two characters makes their contrasts seem all the more marked. Where the prince’s experiences with death drove him into a deep depression, death has become to the gravedigger a ‘property of easiness’. Hamlet must, to a degree, aspire to this bedraggled pauper. After all, he is so much more than what a mere prince can ever be. It is only by becoming the gravedigger that Hamlet might find resolution, and end his torture. The gravedigger deceives us; his impact on Hamlet is formative. He is more than meets the eye. After all, the gravedigger claims that it isn’t sovereigns who ‘hold up Adam’s profession’, but grave-makers like him, because they were around at the beginning of human history - grave-digging transcends the fleeting entrances and exits of courtly life.
However, on the basest level, one is attracted to the First Gravedigger simply because he is an amiable character. Additionally, unlike some of Shakespeare’s supporting characters, the gravedigger seems like a believable figure with a life of his own. He sings a song of a past love
In youth when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet
To contract - O - that time for - a - my behove,
O, methought there - a - was nothing - a - meet.
However, in the second verse, his love tragically dies. The gravedigger does not whine about having lost his love (this makes him a tragic figure), but celebrates the fact that at one point he loved and was loved. Beside Hamlet’s exchange with Ophelia in Act III
Hamlet: Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?
Ophelia: ’Tis brief, my lord.
Hamlet: As woman’s love.
the gravedigger seems admirable. Indeed, throughout the play, love is something warped and chastised by the protagonist: Gertrude and Claudius’ relationship is dubbed as incestuous; Ophelia is hounded to madness. On the other hand, the gravedigger is not bitter, but preaches a positive worldview, antithetical to Hamlet’s. In doing so, the gravedigger brings a spot of ideological variety to Hamlet, making the play seem less dogmatic and dense. Ultimately, however, the gravedigger is so powerful a character because he believes in love in a universe where it is absent.
In bringing death back down to earth, acting as a fit challenger to Hamlet, and operating as the antithesis to much of Hamlet’s philosophy, the First Gravedigger can be seen as an interesting character. However, I find him extraordinary because he embodies these qualities despite his ragged, filthy appearance. Essentially, this is what comedy is - a settlement of two incompatibles. Billy Crystal has played him, yet the gravedigger is a memento mori, whose presence and twinning with Hamlet creates an awkwardness: the prince is meeting his own undertaker. The encounter is so coincidental that the gravedigger seems like an agent of fate. He could easily be a member of the audience or a different player who has wandered onto the set, offsetting the chain of events and deciding the play’s finale: a deus ex machina of the greatest play ever written. Indeed, the conversation between Hamlet and the gravedigger is intimate, and doesn’t seem staged. Going further, it occurs in a world separate from Hamlet’s courtly drama, and is the first time peasant and aristocrat are mingled. The way that the First Gravedigger reduces the complexities of Ophelia’s alleged suicide (illustrated in the recent Tennant version with a coffee and sandwich) as one might in explaining the action to a friend at the pub after the theatre. It certainly could not come from any other character in the play - consider it beside Gertrude’s elegiac description of events. The First Gravedigger rids the play of its metaphysical tosh, whilst still musing on those themes, just as an audience member might, and in doing so draws the play into the space between the stage and audience. This is what makes him an unequivocally brilliant character. He manages to be comic, but not a relief.