Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-diggers in Hamlet
From The Fools of Shakespeare by Frederick Warde. London: McBride, Nast & company.
"Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?"
It would scarcely seem possible that a grave-yard attached to a church, with a half-dug grave in the foreground, for the scene; midnight
or near thereto, for the time; a pickax, a spade, a
heap of fresh earth, some human skulls and bones
for the properties; and two grave-diggers for the
dramatis personae would furnish a location and
material for comedy and humor, yet in the first
scene of the fifth act of the tragedy of "Hamlet,"
Shakespeare has taken these materials and conditions, and given us a series of incidents, a variety
of character, and a dialogue replete with the most
delightful comedy, brilliant repartee, ready wit
and subtle humor.
The circumstances are these: A young lady
attached to the court of the King of Denmark has
been drowned. The general opinion being that
she committed suicide. In the time of Shakespeare, and prior thereto, such unfortunates were
denied Christian burial. Their remains were interred outside of consecrated ground without service or any of the rites of the Church. In fact, it
was not unusual to bury them at the intersection of the highways, very deeply, and to drive a strong stake through the body. The object of this barbarous proceeding being, to impale and destroy
the evil spirit, which the prevailing superstition
supposed to be in possession of the suicide. In the
present instance, the King has commanded that
the remains of the unfortunate lady should be
buried in the consecrated ground of the church-yard.
The King's command, violating all the ancient
and accepted traditions of the church, arouses the
indignation of the old sexton, who combines the
office of grave-digger. To this personage Shakespeare has given such a strong individuality, such
a pungency of wit and wealth of humor, together
with such delightful touches of nature, making it
so true to life, that I cannot but think the poet
must have had a prototype in his own observation
In the list of characters in the play this personage and his assistant are set down as "Two
Clowns as Grave-diggers," but modern editors have separated them in the cast, and called them
"First and Second Grave-diggers." This method has been adopted in all the acting editions, and
in the following observations I shall so designate
The first grave-digger is of a type that may be
found in many of our country villages today, -
a quaint sententious old fellow "dressed in a little
brief authority," and full of his own importance.
He has a little knowledge of law, quotes one or
two legal phrases in Latin incorrectly, and
preaches a crude idea of socialism to his younger
assistant, much to the awe and admiration of that
simple individual, who addresses his acknowledged superior as "Goodman delver."
I picture the old fellow in my mind as robust
of figure, ruddy of feature, with distinct evidences
of bibulous taste on his nose and cheeks, a humorous twinkle in his eyes, in spite of an assumed
severity, dressed in the homely smock of the peasant of that place and period, and about fifty
years of age. He has the courage of his convictions for he has seldom found any one to combat them, so he advances his arguments with the
authority of one whose dictum is not to be questioned. Should these fail him, however, he can
command the respect of his fellows by a ready
tongue and homely wit, as exampled in his dialogue with his subordinate, and later with Prince
He is no respecter of persons: his replies to the
questions of Hamlet being as straightforward and
blunt as those to his peasant companion, while
his replications in the exchange of wit with the
former indicate so much irreverence and independence, that it draws from the Prince the significant observation: "By the Lord, Horatio, ... the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he
galls his kibe."
The character of the old sexton bears in some
small degree a resemblance to that of "Dogberry"
in "Much Ado About Nothing," in its self-importance, but it is more consistent, less bombastic, and never servile.
Our first acquaintance with the old fellow is
made at the beginning of the first scene of the
fifth act of the play, when he enters the church-yard followed by his assistant, who carries a spade
and a mattock. That his mind is disturbed by the violation of ancient traditions is evidenced in
his first speech given in the form of a question to
his follower: "Is she to be buried in Christian
burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?"
To which his assistant, evidently a younger man,
with the assurance of accurate information, replies: "I tell thee she is; and therefore make her
grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her and finds it Christian burial."
Now comes the inherent love of argument in
the old man: "How can that be, unless she
drowned herself in her own defense?"
The younger man has no reply to this proposition, but contents himself with reiteration: "Why, 'tis found so." To the ordinary peasant
of the time this would have concluded the matter,
but the sexton, who has small respect for the
verdict of the crowner's quest, and perceiving an
opportunity to expound his wisdom, proceeds with
It requires little imagination to realize the pomposity of the sturdy old stickler for tradition, as
he emphasizes his points; or to note the syllabic orotundity with which he utters the Latin phrase
that he has probably heard in some legal proceedings, and memorized for use at a future time, to
awe his adversary with his learning; and to observe the originality of his logic in the conclusion
that the lady's death was not accidental. "It must be 'se offendendo'; it cannot be else. For
here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly,
it argues an act: and an act hath three branches;
it is, to act, to do, and to perform: argal, she
drowned herself wittingly,"
His assistant is not without some self-assertion
in spite of Latin and logic, and makes a valiant
attempt to enter a protest against the old man's
prejudiced conclusions. "Nay, but hear you,
goodman delver." But the goodman will not be
silenced with flattery nor does he propose to
honor his youthful disputant with more controversy, but proceeds to demonstrate his theory in
a practical fashion. Taking his spade he lays it
down on the smooth turf of the church-yard, explaining: "Here lies the water; good." Then
at some little distance from the spade he stands the pick or mattock on end: "Here stands the
man, good," and taking a position between the two implements, with judicial gravity, he delivers
himself as follows: "If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is will he, nill he, he goes;
mark you that; but if the water come to him and
drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that
is not guilty of his own death shortens not his
This demonstration almost convinces the rustic
skeptic, but he is still in doubt as to the legal
aspect of the case, and inquires: "But is this law?"
"Ay, marry, is't; downer's quest law," concludes
the old man.
Finding no argument to combat this conclusion, the young fellow falls back on the elemental socialistic question of human inequality. "Will
you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been a
gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o'
Christian burial." The old fellow fully indorses
this proposition, and emphasizes it with a still
more forcible example, though, perhaps some
may not recognize the advantages of the special
privileges quoted. "Why, there thou sayest: and
the more pity that great folks should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves,
more than their even-Christian. Come, my
spade." The old man takes his spade, but before
proceeding to work, asserts the natural dignity of
his trade, and bemoans the degeneracy of the age;
which provokes the following bit of delightful
1st Gra. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers and grave-makers: they hold up
2nd Gra. Was he a gentleman?
1st Gra. A' the first that ever bore arms.
2nd Gra. Why, he had none.
1st Gra. What, art a heathen? How dost thou
understand the Scripture? The Scripture says Adam
digged: Could he dig without arms?
After a hearty laugh at the jest, the old fellow
propounds a conundrum, a very popular form of
entertainment among simple country wits. However, to realize the significance of the riddle and
the preceding dialogue, it is essential to have the
full picture in one's mind: the solemn background
of the church, the grim environment of the old
headstones and tombs, ghostlike in the midnight
shadows, the newly made grave waiting for its
tenant, the odor of the fresh earth, and the homely
figures of the two sextons with the dismal tools
of their trade, form a combination in strong contrast with the humor of the dialogue, and yet in
complete harmony with the spirit of the occasion.
The old grave-digger standing with one foot on
his spade, his eyes sparkling with humor, emphasizes with his index finger the question that is to
confuse the wits of his younger assistant; the
other leaning on the mattock listens with parted
lips, eager to catch every word, and match his wit
against that of the veteran humorist.
"What is he that builds stronger than either
the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?"
The young man is puzzled for a moment,
scratches his head, then with a look of triumph,
answers quickly: "The gallows-maker; for that
frame outlives a thousand tenants."
It is a good answer and the old fellow is not
slow to acknowledge it, but it is not the correct
one, so the momentary satisfaction of the young
man is turned to chagrin, and his wits spurred to
another effort. How the old fellow chuckles as
the young one wrestles with the knotty problem,
and how deliciously is the patronage of the old
egotist's superior wisdom expressed in the passage
that follows: "I like thy wit well, in good
faith: The gallows does well: but how does it
well? It does well to those that do ill: now thou
dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than
the church: argal: the gallows may do well to thee.
To't again, come."
The young man repeats the proposition: "Who
builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a
carpenter?" and ruefully struggles to find another
fitting reply. But his mental faculties are dull,
it is beyond him, he has to confess it, and the old
fellow does not spare him, but accentuates his
triumph, and completes the poor fellow's humiliation by giving the answer, and then dismissing
him to fetch a stoop of liquor.
"Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your
dull ass will not mend his pace with beating, and
when you are asked this question next, say 'a
grave-maker': the houses that he makes last till
doomsday. Go, get thee to Yaughan, fetch me a
stoop of liquor."
The traditional business at this point was for
the old grave-digger to remove with great deliberation a number of vests or waist-coats of various
colors and patterns, carefully fold and lay them
at one side, and then roll up his sleeves before
descending into the uncompleted grave to proceed
with his work. This absurd piece of business has,
however, long since been discarded, and the actor
of to-day plays the part with more appropriate action, consistent with the character, and
within scope of human possibility. Laying his
spade and pick by the side of the grave he
gradually lowers himself into it with the natural
effort of a man of his age, then in a workman-like manner proceeds first to loosen the earth
with his pick, then to throw it out, together with
the skulls and bones as the dialogue calls for them,
chanting the words of the old ballad at the proper
cues, emphasizing the effort, and punctuating his
singing with the strokes of his mattock, and the
work of the spade.
It is at this point that Prince Hamlet and his friend Horatio appear outside of the low wall that encloses the grave-yard. Seeing the old
man's grim occupation, and hearing his humorous song, the incongruity of the proceeding surprises
the Prince, who inquires of his friend: "Has this fellow no feeling of his business that he sings at
grave-making?" To which Horatio sagely replies: "Custom hath made it in him a property
Unconscious of observation, the sexton continues his work and his song, throwing out the earth, some human bones, and two chapless skulls;
while the Prince and his friend look on and
philosophize on the gruesome relics that are so
irreverently handled by the old man. The second skull thrown from the grave is about to roll
away, when the sexton strikes it sharply with his
spade to imbed it in the soft, fresh earth. This
apparent brutal indifference to the grim remains
of poor mortality is the subject of further speculative philosophy on the part of the Prince, who
finally steps over the wall, advances to the side of the grave, and addresses the grave-digger, asking: "Who's grave's this, sirrah"?"
I imagine the old man has been asked this
question so frequently, and by all manner of people, that he has grown impatient at the query, and
with scarcely a glance at his questioner he answers abruptly, "Mine, sir," and continues his work
and his song.
I recall when I was a very small boy, living in an English country village, an old cobbler, whose shop, or rather stall, was on the side of the
street by which I went to school. He was a
quaint, good-natured old fellow, and I would frequently stop, watch him at work and talk to him.
All of his work was done by hand. He used to sit at the end of a low bench on which
were all of his materials and tools, in little square compartments. He wore a large pair of
spectacles with horn frames, and would bend
over a wooden last, held fast to his knee by a
circular leathern strap from his foot, make holes
with an awl, insert and draw the wax end tightly,
as he attached the upper to the sole of the shoe
he was making. I used to regard him with great
interest, and wonder at his dexterity and rapidity.
I knew practically everybody in the village, and
with boyish curiosity would ask the old cobbler
who the shoes were for. He would invariably
reply: "Mr. Wearem." This puzzled me for
some time, as I knew no one of that name; but
ultimately I comprehended: it was a reproof to
my curiosity, the old man's standing jest, and a
whimsical evasion of the question he was asked
so frequently. I find a parallel in my old cobbler's jest and the grave-digger's reply to Hamlet.
The Prince, however, is not disposed to be
silenced by this discourtesy, but makes a rejoinder
that bluntly charges the old man with a lie.
Against this accusation the grave-digger stoutly
defends himself, and makes countercharge with a
shrewd wit in a dialogue replete with ingenious
punning, and a crude logic that carries his point,
and compels recognition from the Prince, who
diplomatically changes the subject.
To facilitate the reader's appreciation, I quote
the dialogue that follows the grave-digger's reply:
Ham. I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in't.
Gra. You lie out on't, sir, and therefore 'tis not
yours: for my part, I do not lie in't and yet, it is mine.
Ham. Thou dost lie in't, to be in't and to say it is
thine: 'tis for the dead, not for the quick: therefore
Gra. 'Tis a quick lie, sir, 'twill away again from
me to you.
Ham. What man dost thou dig it for?
Gra. For no man, sir.
Ham. What woman then?
Gra. For none neither.
Ham. Who is to be buried in't?
Gra. One that was a woman sir, but, rest her soul,
* * * * * * * *
Ham. How long hast thou been a grave-maker?
The answer is given with characteristic loquacity, by the old man, who still maintains his reputation as a wit-snapper.
The most casual reader of Shakespeare cannot
but observe how much is connoted as well as
expressed in many of the brief passages of the
poet. In answer to the above simple question,
the valor of the late King, and the martial character of the Danes is suggested; we are told the
day of Hamlet's birth; we learn of the gossip of
the people and the general impression of the
Prince's mental condition, the supposed reason of
his despatch to England, together with some satirical allusions to the people of that country; and,
while the old man ingeniously reveals the age of
Hamlet, he incidentally suggests his own. "I
have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty
This, granting he was about twenty years old
when he began his work as a grave-maker, and it
is improbable to suppose that he would be entrusted with such serious work at an earlier age,
would make him fifty at this time, as I have before suggested.
Hamlet's next question: "How long will a
man lie in the earth ere he rot?" provokes more
punning by the old man and some very plain and
original reasoning as to the time and process of
the decay of mortal remains; those of a tanner in
The dialogue is terminated by the selection of
one of the skulls by the grave-digger to illustrate
his arguments, which the old man asserts is the
skull of Yorick, the late King's jester.
The "property of easiness," suggested by Horatio, is again exampled by the irreverence and
familiarity with which the grave-maker handles this skull. As he recalls the pranks of the dead
jester, he laughingly slaps the hollow temples of the unconscious remnant, as if he were boxing the
ears of the living jester, and gleefully chuckles
as memory revives the "mad rogue's" wit and
humor, before handing it to the Prince.
This incident diverts the mind of Hamlet from his catechism of the grave-digger to tender memories of his childhood's friend and playmate, so
that the sentiment of the scene is changed, but
to this I have referred at some length in a former
The funeral procession enters the church-yard,
the sexton assists in lowering the body of the unfortunate lady to its last resting place, and with
that duty done, the character of the grave-digger in the play is concluded. But if we permit our
imagination a little scope, we might see, after the
funeral party has left the scene, the old fellow
shoveling the earth back into the newly-tenanted
grave, and hear the refrain of his quaint song
borne upon the stillness of the early morning air:
A pick-axe, and a spade, a spade,
The most conspicuous figure that I can recall
as a representative of the first grave-digger, was
the late J. H. McVicker, founder and proprietor of McVicker's Theater, Chicago. He played the part when on tour with Edwin Booth, his son-in-
law, who was then under his management. I had the honor of being Mr. Booth's principal support, and played the part of Laertes. Mr. McVicker was of Irish and Scotch descent, and combined the general characteristics of those two nationalities. He was strong in his own opinions,
somewhat harsh and dictatorial in his manner, but with a vein of quaint humor that was much
in evidence when not obsessed with business. Hardly the temperament for an artist, you would
say? True! but in the case of the old sexton
these very qualities fitted the character. Mr. McVicker used little if any make-up, in fact he did
not need any; he was at this time, I should judge,
about sixty years of age, rotund of figure, full in
the face, which was clean-shaven, and with sparse gray hair, that was always disheveled. He
dressed the part in a dark brown tunic or smock;
his arms were bare, but his legs and feet were
encased in rough buskins and sandals. He
looked the part to perfection; he did not have to
act, only to speak the lines, and he was the old
grave-digger. The self-importance, the grave assumption of knowledge, and the air of "brief
authority" over his fellow- worker were finely
given; while his surprised expression at the audacity of the younger man in questioning his judgment was a splendid illustration of the assurance of ignorance and self-conceit.
For and a shrouding sheet:
O a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.
At the time of which I speak very little, if any, scenery and few properties were carried by touring dramatic companies. We carried none, but depended on the stock of the theaters we visited for the scenery, and borrowed the properties and furniture from local stores, giving in return complimentary tickets to the performance. The two human skulls were especially difficult to obtain in the smaller towns.
Our property-man, however, was of considerable
experience and full of resource in an emergency
and when unable to obtain the real article invariably found a substitute that served the purpose.
For the skulls he used two large turnips, shaping them like the human head, excavating the eye
sockets, hollowing the jaws and mouth, and then coloring them with brown paint. Indeed, they
looked remarkably well and few of the audience could detect the imposition from the front of the
theater. One night, however, when Mr. McVicker, as the grave-digger, handed the supposed
skull to Mr. Booth, as Hamlet, the latter gentleman failed to grasp it securely and it fell with a
heavy thud to the stage. The deception was then obvious, and the audience roared with laughter.
But worse consequences followed. The confounded turnip rolled down to the footlights,
knocked off one of the tips of the gas jets (electricity was not then in use), a big flame rose from
the broken jet, a cry of Fire! was raised, and a panic in the audience was only averted by the
prompt action of the leader of the orchestra, who
reached over and smothered the flaming gas-jet
with his pocket handkerchief.
On another occasion during our Southern tour,
Mr. McVicker called me on one side prior to the
beginning of the last act of Hamlet, and whispered in my ear, "Watch me when I hand Edwin
the skull to-night." I watched.
It appeared that our property-man had been
unable to obtain even turnips with which to
fashion skulls for the grave-yard scene, so he had
procured a couple of very large Bermuda onions,
cut and perforated them as he had done the,
turnips, colored, and placed them in the grave:
Mr. McVicker alone being cognizant of the character of the remains. The grave-digger threw
them out at the proper cue, and the deception
passed unnoticed, but, when the old sexton handed
the supposed skull of poor dead Yorick to Mr.
Booth, who had a particular aversion to onions in
any form, the aroma of that mutilated sphere,
mingled with the odor of the paint, became so
offensive to him that he was seized with nausea,
and with difficulty completed the delivery of his
tender apostrophe to the remains of his dead
friend. However, his final questions to Horatio,
as he handed, with unusual alacrity the repulsive
vegetable to that gentleman: "Dost thou think
Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth'?
And smelt so? pah!" had a significance that heretofore had not been in evidence. Subsequently
Mr. Booth joined in a hearty laugh at the incident, and shortly afterwards two human skulls
were purchased for the performance.
How to cite this article:
Warde, Frederick. The Fools of Shakespeare. London: McBride, Nast & company, 1915. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletgravediggers.html >.
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