Digging for Meaning

Meaning Beyond Death

I love the grave digger’s scene in Hamlet. Irony abounds as the audience explores life in death.


But the play never really dies.

Shakespeare finds immortality in Hamlet.

Digging through Shakespeare is not unlike archaeology whereby the reader excavates the words and attempts to piece together evidence to build some sense of meaning.

505px-Foil-2004-AMeaning Beyond Foils

Of course, Hamlet uses a foil in the final fight scene of the play, and even says to one of his literary foils, Laertes, “I’ll be your foil.” Ms. Meldrum inspired me the other day into thinking about the foils in Hamlet, and because there are several, I decided to frame them around abstract ideas which can then lead us to thinking about the major themes of the play.

Literary foils are secondary characters which offer an audience contrasts that highlight important aspects of the main character. There are some similarities, but enough differences, and it is through these differences that the audience learns about the protagonist.

Revenge: Laertes, Fortinbras, and Hamlet

All three are young men whose fathers have been taken from them by another. All three feel an injustice has been done to them and that they must seek revenge for their fathers. However, each act differently on that desire for revenge. Laertes acts passionately, quickly, and without forethought. Fortinbras acts, then retreats, and plans carefully for his revenge. Hamlet feels passionately, attempts to act, then retreats, and dies as a tragic victim of his own indecisiveness and inaction.

Honour and LoyaltyRosencrantz & Guildenstern, Horatio, Claudius and Hamlet

Hamlet values honour and loyalty, and only decides to descend into madness when he feels that he cannot trust many in the Danish court to act honourably. The old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern collude with Claudius, while the old friend, Horatio remains steadfast and true to Hamlet. R&G become a pair of pawns manipulated by a dishonourable traitor to the state.

Madness: Ophelia and Hamlet

While Hamlet’s “madness” is debatable, Ophelia’s is pure.

How “to be”: Horatio and Hamlet

Horatio is the stoic man of great intellect and reason. He is the only man left at the end of the play to tell the story of Hamlet, to facilitate the transition of power from Claudius to Fortinbras.

“The readiness is all”

Act V scene ii


[T]here’s a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be
not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,
what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

About melaniewhite2012

I am a high school English and Media Studies Teacher, an editor, and writer of educational publications for McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd, and a mother of three. I distance run, exist largely on raw food, fresh air and sunshine, good literature, thoughtful radio, film, and laughter.
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2 Responses to Digging for Meaning

  1. I rather like, in the gravedigger’s scene, the way the two clowns recognize that Ophelia does not really “deserve” the Christian burial she’s getting (because of the circumstances of her death) but will get this burial anyway because of her family’s standing and relationship to the crown. It really sums up the theme that everything is corrupt and everybody knows it.

  2. Pingback: Hamlet: a novel by John Marsden | Rafferty's Rules

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