Hamlet: Contrast Plays A Major Role Essay, Research Paper
Hamlet: Contrast Plays A Major Role
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.