The use of comedy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet serves many purposes for the audience, while also serving a distinct purpose in the play. Hamlet is a tragedy about a son who avenges his father’s murder, but his madness and indecision take its toll on everyone. Shakespeare uses humor in this play as a device to temporarily distract the audience away from the almost relentless tragedy and dark plot turns that permeate the rest of the story. The humorous scenes in the play always come directly before or after a scene of great violence.
The few comedic scenes tossed into an otherwise tragic play serve to keep the audience interested in what’s happening, and also lend a tone of dark, morbid humor to a serious story. Through the incompetent-leader/wise-follower complex cliche of the gravedigger and his assistant, the naivety of Osric, and the incessant ramblings of Polonius, and ultimately Hamlet with the use of his subtle, sick, and persistent humor cropping out at every turn, these characters play important roles in deciding outcomes or setting the stage for upcoming events while providing the audience with comic relief from the continuous tragedies of the play.
Though cliche, the gravedigger scene provides the reader with an effective pair of characters contrasting in personality and sense, but nonetheless important. The scene follows directly after the discussion of Ophelia’s death and the development of the plot of Laertes and Claudius to murder Hamlet. This scene of great tragedy and conspiracy comes right before the conversation between the gravediggers over the digging of Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet is outwitted in this scene by the gravedigger. The gravedigger tries to mess with Hamlet’s head with a clever use of his words.
In line 123 the gravedigger shows how he outsmarts Hamlet, “One that was a woman, sir, but rest her soul, she’s dead. ” Polonius and Osric continue to exchange riddles and word-play when Hamlet asks whose grave it is that the gravedigger is digging. The gravedigger responds that since he’s digging the grave, it’s his. Hamlet asks it for a man or a woman, to which the gravedigger responds that it is for neither since the one who will lie in it is dead. This comedic event relieves the tension of the suicide of Ophelia, revealing the ultimate moral of suicide for the whole play.
If Hamlet does not really go mad under his unparalleled griefs and burdens, it is because under all circumstances his grim and tragic humor holds evenly the balance of his mind. In some of the most tragic moments of his career, he has the sanity to play with his victims and with the sad conditions of his life. One particular case is the play Hamlet puts on, Mouse Trap. Hamlet uses the play to get revenge on his uncle without having to kill him, yet. This play serves as the relief to the tension of the thoughts between Hamlet and his uncle by portraying the situation the two are going through with a comic view.
Hamlet finds his humor in this knowing that the play is driving his uncle mad and very much infuriating him. After the play, Hamlet feels so happy at the turn of events and his success in getting evidence of the king’s guilt that he playfully suggests to Horatio that if all else failed him, he might make a success of playing and get a share in a company, “Would not this, sir, a forest of feathers, —if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, — with two provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir? (Hamlet 263-373). By saying this, Hamlet is using his witty humor to suggest that he should perhaps be a play writer, since his play was so successful in affecting his uncle Claudius. Despite the fact that Hamlet is a tragic play, William Shakespeare allows comic elements to play a role in this drama as well. The comedy in Hamlet not only serves as a mental breather for the viewers, but also exposes the personality traits of some characters and allows Prince Hamlet to ridicule particular people in their presence.
Whether it be through the sarcastic nature of Osric and Polonius, or through the sick, tortured humor of Hamlet, comedy presents itself and relieves the tension. Overall, Hamlet is another of Shakespeare’s excellent works, and through its exceptional characters and comedic or tragic events capture the hearts of readers across the whole world.