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 andsomber 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 subsequentdeath), 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 thegraveyard here, which further intensifies the effect. The clowns chatter abouttheir 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 evenwent so far as to include his puns in this grave scene (V,1,120).
Hamlet himself experiences a temporary lightening of mood from listening tothe gravediggers’ conversation. Their carefree treatment of death singing whiledigging graves, not to mention tossing skulls in the air) is a parallel toHamlet’s newfound attitude. After having committed himself to his cause in ActIV, he is no longer bothered by the paradox of good and evil, and (seemingly) isuntroubled by his previous misgivings. Hamlet’s musings on the equality of all men in death serve as a transitioninto the darker second half of the scene.
His contemplations on death reflectAct IV, Scene 3, when Hamlet gives voice to a humorous notion concerning ” howa king may progress through the guts of a beggar ” (IV,3,27-28). Hamlet expandson this idea with his thoughts on how even Alexander the Great or ” ImperiousCaesar ” 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 thesecond half, which balances the humor of the previous portion. The graveyard nowtakes on its more traditional role, as a place of grief, rather than a place ofdrollery. Laertes’s words, understandably, contain references to Hell, and alsohold no particular benevolence for Hamlet. The tension of the scene is further heightened by the confrontation whichbreaks out between Hamlet and Laertes.
This altercation foreshadows the finalduel between the pair. The gloom of the scene is also furthered by thecircumstances surrounding Ophelia’s death. The questionable suicide ofsomeone’s mad sister is more depressing than the death of someone’s sister whodied saving children from a fire. Act Five, Scene one is but one example of Shakespeare’s use of contrast inHamlet, though there are some features that make this scene particularly unique. The juxtaposition of the clowns and the graveyard within the largerjuxtaposition of the humorous first half and the somber second half is one ofthese distinguishing characteristics.
This is also where the reader (or theaudience) 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 theheadsman’s axe have given him a new perspective on the ideas which previouslyconsumed his thoughts. In conclusion, the comedy and tragedy of Act Five, Scene One balance eachother, but also serve distinct purposes. The dark humor of the first halfprovides a relaxation of the atmosphere, much needed after Ophelia’s death andthe complexities of the plot. The banter of the gravediggers furnishes theaudience with a dramatic pause before the final ascent into the play’sresolution. The tense grief of the second segment gives the audience an insightinto Hamlet’s character (through his expression of love for Ophelia), and alsoprovides foreshadowing of the play’s final duel.
When combined into a singlescene, these elements breathe an extraordinary life into Hamlet.