Hamlet in Act V

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How and why has Hamlet changed in Act V? What is the significance of the graveyard scene? esp. The speech to Yorick's skull???

-- Patrick Walker (www.criesandwhispers666@yahoo.com), November 16, 2002


I think basically the key is in his throwing out of his earlier frequent railing against fortune and his acceptance of fate governed by providence (and no, I don't mean he's copping out: see my Nov 16, 2002 response to "Hamlet - vs - Claudius"). It changes his bearing, his outlook, his get up and go. Why has he changed? I think he answers that himself in V.ii.4-11: what he experienced on board ship learned him.

The graveyard scene with the speech to Yorrick's skull is, in brief, Hamlet confronting and coming to a calm acceptance of the hard facts of human mutability and mortality, both in general and of a particular loved one. We are probably also meant to contrast Laertes' behaviour with Hamlet's at this point, which has been done elsewhere in the forum.

The following comes from a history essay I once wrote for uni. It's easier to just cut and paste.

"In his attitude to death and the purposes of life before it, Hamlet reflects the ideology of Renaissance society. He begins the play rather disillusioned with life because death is inevitable and he finds mortality vulgar (I.ii.72-76 and 129ff, and II.ii.295-310). In the course of the famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be ...” he complains that the possibilities of life are not fulfilled because of fear of death (III.i.78-88).

"But in Act V he comes to embrace a broader Renaissance view of death. Savonarola, preaching on death in the 1490s, encouraged people to visit cemeteries and “to take a skull in one’s hand and contemplate it often.” Shakespeare, explicit as ever, has Hamlet actually do exactly this to come to an acceptance of the inevitability of the reality of mortality (V.i.174-209). He is then able to move beyond fear and horror of it to the renaissance vision that life, more than just a preparation for death, was also a period in which something of value could be achieved and passed on to the future, allowing the individual even to live on through fame.

"Thus Hamlet faces and accepts death in general, then the death of Ophelia, and still goes on with his life to plan and achieve his purpose, the death of Claudius; and he even displays a degree of humour whilst he knows he is risking his own death. He accepts, too, that the timing and manner of it must be left up to “providence”. And when he does come to die, he has two concerns: his own future name, and the future welfare of the state (V.ii.215-220, and 343-345, and 349-363)."

In 1473, Giovanni Rucellai wrote, 'It is commonly said that a good life brings a good death ... reason constrains me to die willingly, and so may it please the Lord God to concede me the grace so to do.'

Hamlet said, 'There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. ... The readiness is all.'

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), November 17, 2002.

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