Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio before the Gravediggers, 1843
Sunday, 17 December 2017 04:15

Shakespeare’s Gravediggers – the first appearance of working people on the world stage

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses the prophetic politics of the Gravedigger scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which class-based justice and fundamental human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' by revolutionary upheaval. The scene is the first appearance of working people on the world stage.

There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with Shakespeare’s name. His poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other. How can this enduring and all-encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?

Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is, it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.

Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.

The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).

This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam. He advocated social equality for all, and the gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.” 

The working people in this scene are given more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.

The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.

The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.

Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger. But he is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.

The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness, a kind of emotional communism, is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.

At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.

When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death. Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person - a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.

When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.

In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, which are historical and linked to class forces as well as personal, even if their time has not yet come. It is clear that in this episode social inequality and human equality are being discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' - by revolutionary upheaval. In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which was the first successful take-over of state power by representatives of workers and peasants (including gravediggers), the episode is more relevant than ever.

Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction (2016), published by Nuascéalta, is available online.

 

The Balcony Scene
Sunday, 17 December 2017 04:15

Making Sense of Shakespeare

Published in Theatre

In Part Two of his series, Professor Gabriel Egan considers how the sense of words and phrases shifts across time and cultures, and how we can still have a meanigful conversation with Shakespeare.


Do we really understand Shakespeare the way his contemporaries did? There are plenty of opportunities for the modern reader to misunderstand what Shakespeare's characters are saying. One problem is what linguists call the 'false friend' word: we think we understand it but in fact the modern sense is quite different from the sense used in Shakespeare's time.

Marcellus and Horatio try to stop Hamlet from following the ghost of Hamlet's father, which seems to beckon him away for a private conference that they fear could be dangerous. Hamlet violently rebuffs their efforts to restrain him, crying "By heav'n, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me" (1.4). The word lets seems quite wrong here: surely he means he'll make a ghost of anyone who won't let him follow and talk to his father's spirit. The verb to let has reversed in meaning since Shakespeare's time: it used to mean preventing something rather than permitting it. British passports still use the word in Hamlet's sense, requiring foreigners to "allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".

Perhaps the most widely misunderstood Shakespeare word is wherefore, as in "O Romeo, | Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (2.1). The dramatic context of a young woman looking out from her bedroom balcony encourages readers to suppose that she wonders where her lover is, but wherefore actually means why. This is odd. She is asking why he is called Romeo rather than something else that would not be an obstacle to their love: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name, | Or . . . I'll no longer be a Capulet". It would make more sense (and scan just as well) if the second and/or third Romeo were Montague.

Less well-known but more egregious is the misunderstanding of Shakespeare that is widely reproduced on posters depicting beautiful views of the countryside: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (Troilus and Cressida 3.3). Far from being the source of goodness that unites diverse human cultures, by touch of nature Ulysses here means a weakness shared by all humankind: a taste for novel delights over things of true value.

Any competent specialist on Shakespeare's language can correct readers' mistakes regarding the meaning of his words - often it only takes a glance at the dramatic context. But should we conclude, then, that all of his meanings are available to us today so long as we take the trouble to recover them? Marxists are not the only intellectuals who harbour serious doubts that we can make the past so easily accessible to readers in the present. What if the underlying habits of thought and unspoken assumptions from Shakespeare's time are just so different to ours that we make similar 'false friend' errors regarding whole categories and concepts?

Take the barely suppressed homosexual desire between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, which no-one noticed until W. H. Auden pointed it out in 1947. Attitudes towards this desire were different in Shakespeare's time from those of today, and indeed were quite different even in Auden's time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. In what sense can we think of Shakespeare's universal appeal when notions of moral behaviour have so radically changed?

And it's not only sexual morality. Attitudes towards how societies should govern themselves have been revolutionized since Shakespeare's time by the rise of democracy. To understand what Richard II's contemporaries think he has done wrong, in his play, one needs more than a merely factual account of the idea of the divine right of kings. With rights, we often say today, come responsibilities, but this is not at all the view of those like Richard who believe in monarchial divine right. The Homily Against Disobedience preached from Elizabethan pulpits made it quite clear that even a bad king must not be resisted by his people, since only God could make and unmake rulers.

Yet it is also clear that in other matters Elizabethans saw rights and responsibilities as mutually reciprocal. In the New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works to be published later this year, the editors have (with some regret, in my case) modernized a number of occurrences of the word owe to own. Shakespeare uses owe to mean possess, as in Roderigo's remark "What a full fortune does the thicklips owe | If he can carry't thus", meaning that Othello is a made man if he can marry and keep the desirable Desdemona (Othello 1.1). Linguistically there is no editorial defence for retaining owe in such cases: the notion is of ownership, not of debt, and hence the modern word is own. But the spelling owe for the notion of possession does pleasingly, to a Marxist, suggest that for Elizabethans the principle of possession necessarily entailed its opposite, a reciprocal obligation to give things away.

Editing Shakespeare involves making his works meaningful to modern readers, for example by modernizing his spelling (as in owe > own), but this does not imply that the plays' meanings were stored away by him 400 years ago and have only to be carefully unwrapped by us now to be fully appreciated. Marxist cultural criticism rightly rejects the idea that literary meaning is transhistorical, transcultural and simply embedded in writing from the past.

Rather, meaning is generated at the point of consumption by modern readers. In the opening words of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley observed that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" and – to shift geographical metaphors only slightly – watching, studying, writing about, criticizing, and editing Shakespeare can be seen as building a bridge to span the historical chasm that separates his time from ours. But this is only a metaphorical chasm, made merely of changes in how humans think, speak, and behave.

A more apt analogy would be conversation, in which we neither speak past one another as though using different languages nor entirely adopt one another's ideas as self-evident. Rather we speak to contest meanings, to reflect upon those differences of opinion we can grasp and, unless we have given up altogether the point of talking, to modify our views accordingly. That is the kind of conversation we can still have with Shakespeare.