Hamlet and the Grave Digger by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret
The Grave Diggers scene (Act V, scene i) in Hamlet is well noted for its excellence as one that encompasses the themes of the play through literal graveyard humor. In this post, I explore three modern interpretations. Choose your own favorite!
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 production, with an all-star cast.
Personally, I hold the Kenneth Branagh version as the gold standard in its interpretation of the text. It is faithful (word for word) to the source, excellent in its casting (Billy Crystal is the First Grave Digger!), enunciated clearly, and acted with aplomb.
The costumes for the scene are plain–by elegant Victorian standards, which is the era this version is set in–and the whole scene is excellently lit and staged. I also like the platinum blonde of this Hamlet. He embodies the Melancholy Dane quite thoroughly, and his voice is a pleasure to hear. I also quite like Nicholas Farell’s Horatio. Branagh and Farell have an easy rapport and their Royal Shakespeare Company roots easily shine through.
- “Alas, poor Yorick!”
Billy Crystal as The First Grave Digger
Billy Crystal outshines them both, though, on several levels. His Grave Digger is dirty in appearance and only somewhat clownish, insomuch as he doesn’t take it to extremes. His wordplay is fast and clever, with all the hallmarks of a smart ass. He knows when to settle down into the text, though, and manages to bring a wise yet witty tone to what could otherwise be a flat delivery of jokes that are already expected.
2008 David Tennant DVD cover
David Tennant’s interpretation is acted in a more casual–yet no less affecting–manner and is played/spoken more in modern everyday tones than Branagh’s more deliberately poetic, elaborate, Elizabethan ones. This version is also thorough, as Royal Shakespeare Company productions tend to be, but not as excruciatingly true to the text as Branagh’s version. Its contemporary setting makes for interesting uses of technology, however. All in all, it’s a very good performance.
The costumes for this scene are even more casual than this modern performance would dictate, however. Hamlet is dressed shabbily and appropriately for the chill, disguised as a commoner and in a state of genuine scruffiness. He wears dirty running shoes, and would not look out of place at a soup kitchen. I am slightly in awe of his casual line delivery; it makes the banter and wordplay somewhat more “real” and engaging. I am not so fond of the supporting cast, but Tennant truly shines here anyway. One thing that earns them mega-points, though, is the use of an actual human skull that was donated to The Royal Shakespeare Company.
FUN FACT: Yorick's skull is a REAL one.
The Grave Digger in this film falls flat for me. The thick accent is hard to interpret and the acting is only just adequate enough to support Tennant. I’m also not a fan of the tweed suit(!) he wears as he shovels dirt. The schoolteacher look does not fit the role nor the scene, in my opinion. The Second Grave Digger is clearly more clownish, but only in appearance. They both lack a charisma that could have given the entire scene more emphasis. The set is also lacking in decoration. The sparse, outdoor, brick wall backdrop is realistic, of course, but hardly sets the appropriate mood.
The final interpretation I chose stems from the title I created for this post. I thought to myself, “This title sounds like a really great name for a nerdy literature metal band.” However, I knew that one existed already. The Metal Shakespeare Company uses the Bard’s words and takes them up to eleven. They also happen to do a great version of a part of the Grave Diggers scene.
Taking Shakespeare up to 11.
My final thoughts? Branagh’s Grave Diggers scene is perfect if you want a fine mesh of the cerebral, moody, and faithful. Tennant’s is a breath of fresh air in a modern setting with playful delivery. The Metal Shakespeare company’s is pure gold if you’re tired of all the stuffiness, but still want to get your Yorick on.
Happy watching, everyone!
-K. Koeller 5/31/11