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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Oil Paintings on Shakespearean Themes

#123 "GRAVEDIGGER: HAMLET"
Description of Painting - Oil on canvas 13" x 14"
by Hannah Tompkins

 

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Act V opens on a churchyard with two clowns digging a grave. They are not so much clowns in the comic sense as they are folk philosophers.

It is Ophelia's burial they are preparing and they philosophize on the vagaries of governance that permits immunity for royalty and nobility to laws, legal, moral and religious, that are strictly enforced for the commoners.

Ophelia's drowning was declared an accident, not a suicide, for suicides were forbidden Christian burial; but Ophelia was from a noble family.

Hamlet appears in the midst of their homely bantering, as they toss out the head of Yorick, jester to the late king, Hamlet's father. The gravedigger-clown goes another round of wit with Hamlet and they agree that Death, the great leveller of man's estate, has the final say. Hamlet replies:
"The age is grown so picked that the toe of the
peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier". (V.i.)
The painting shows the gravedigger in a contemplative pose, leaning on his shovel, with the skull of Yorick in the foreground.

To the left are ancient, leaning headstones.
Behind him is a dark and winding road that climbs up to a castle, insulated by mountainous crags rising out of a bleak and icy sea.

Overhead, the firmament is draped in a frosty, storm-swept sky. Neither rocky mounts nor castle forts can defend against the final judgement of mortality when the Grim Reaper leads us all down the winding road to the last, solitary destination.

The Digger includes them all, from the Great Alexander and imperious Caesar to the lowly jester, and finally concludes that:
"There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers and gravemakers: they hold up Adam's profession."     (V.i.)
FIN


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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