The clowning acts or the grave digger scene is another theatrical technique used by Shakespeare in HAMLET. The grave digger scene takes place in act V just before the funeral of Ophelia. Though the scene is played by two clowns it is of a great dramatic significance because it is far from being comic. It is rather a grotesque and macabre. The words of the clowns are undertones of death and corruption of the time.
The most serious act in the play starts by the strangest kind of comic relief. It begins by two grave diggers fooling around. The characters are derived from a tradition of performance called “Comedia del”Arte” which is originally Italian and was popular in the renaissance theatre through Europe. Through this technique Shakespeare is juxtaposing the high concepts of the religious doctrines against the lowliness of the grave diggers” work as the essence of this scene’s comedy.
The appearance of hamlet against this background on his sudden return and rescue fro a definite death draws Hamlet to philosophical contemplation about death. He mulls over the nature of life and death and the great difference between the two states. Hamlet looks at every skull and guesses what its owner was when he was among the living. When hamlet finds a particular skull he asks the grave digger whose it might be. The grave digger tells him that it belonged to Yorick the king’s jester. Hamlets knew him. He tells Horatio: “I knew him Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” Hamlet contemplates the subject of death and the fact that all mean are the food of worms and all who lives will end in the grave.
In this scene Shakespeare emphasizes the theme of death as the great equalizer. He also explores the absolute finality of death. Each of the grave diggers” reference to death foreshadows Hamlet’s participants in several deaths including his own. The grave diggers mentions Cain and “the first foul murder” which reminds the audience that Claudius too is a brother killer.