Study Guide

Hamlet Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Yorick's Skull and the Graveyard

Hamlet's constant brooding about death and humanity comes to a (grotesque) head in the infamous graveyard scene, where Hamlet holds up the unearthed skull of Yorick, a court jester Hamlet knew and loved as a young boy. The skull itself is a physical reminder of the finality of death. After all of Hamlet's brooding and philosophical contemplation of mortality, Hamlet literally looks death directly in the face right here.

As you can probably guess, it's a turning point for Hamlet. He thinks about the commonness of death and the vanity of life. He not only remembers Yorick, a mere jester, but also considers what's become of the body that belonged to Alexander the Great. Both men, concludes Hamlet, meet the same end and "returneth into dust" (5.1.217). Morbid? Sure. But it also seems like a new, more mature acceptance of a common human fate. He may be contemplative, but he's not melodramatically contemplating suicide or anything.

There's also a weird part in this scene where Hamlet all of sudden appears to be a lot older than we thought. When the play begins, Hamlet is a university student, which means he's pretty young. By the time Hamlet makes it to the graveyard in Act V, he's apparently thirty years old (much older than the average university student). The evidence? The First Clown says he's been a gravedigger in Elsinore since "the very day that young Hamlet was born" (5.1.152-153) and a few lines later he reveals that he's been a "sexton" in Denmark for "thirty years" (i.e. working at the church and graveyard) (5.1.167).

Sure, maybe Shakespeare just messed things up. It happens. But it wouldn't surprise us if Hamlet literally aged between Act I and Act V —perhaps it's a reflection of his new, more mature outlook on life and death.

One more thing: In this scene, the graveyard is specifically opposed to the royal court, and not just because of the dirt and bones and all. In Act I the court is a place where Hamlet's told to "not for ever with they vailèd lids/ Seek for thy noble father in the dust" (1.2.72-73) and reminded that "your father lost a father,/ That father lost, lost his" (1.2.93-94): in other words, there's no time to remember the dead. People die; get over it; move on.

But not in the graveyard. In the graveyard, Hamlet's allowed to remember the dead. "Alas, poor Yorick," says Hamlet, as he recalls that Yorick was "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy," one who "hath borne [Hamlet] on his back a thousand times" (5.1.190-191; 191-192; 192-193).

So, Hamlet encounters the skull of a man who worked for his father and who Hamlet knew as a child. He remembers his childhood as a happy time in which Old Hamlet was alive and all was well in the world. All this happiness, of course, is disrupted when Hamlet realizes Ophelia (now dead) is being buried a few gravestones over.

We'll let you handle that one on your own.

The Ghost

We thought you might look here for a little something about the ghost. We like the Ghost so much that we gave him his own "Character Analysis"—check it out.

"Rank" Gardens

The gardens in Hamlet aren't necessarily the kind of places where you'd like to hang out and watch butterflies while you picnic. In fact, they're more like overgrown vacant lots than plots that have been tended and nurtured. According to Hamlet, the entire world "tis an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely" (1.2.139-141).

Yuck. The word "rank" refers to the fertile overgrowth of vegetation and also implies the kind of festering and rot that often accompanies lush foliage. You know, push away that pretty vine, and underneath you see a rotting log with a bunch of icky white grubs. And the term "rank" turns up over and over again throughout the play. There's the "mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected" that the play-within-a-play's Lucianus pours in Gonzago's ear, or Hamlet's description of his mother's "rank" marriage bed:

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,
—(3.4.103-106).

Lit crit pro-tip: whenever you see gardens in Western literature, it's a pretty safe bet that there's at least some deep down allusion to the Garden of Eden. In this case, Hamlet's rank gardens recall Eve's temptation in the Biblical Garden of Eden, particularly when the Ghost reveals that Old King Hamlet was murdered by his brother, Claudius, while he slept in his orchard:


'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
(1.5.42-47)


Funny thing: the Ghost sounds a lot like young Hamlet. Notice the way the Ghost insists the murder "rankly abused" the entire kingdom —as if Claudius poured poison in "the whole ear" of Denmark. What's more, the Ghost insists that Claudius' poison caused a scaly rash and "loathsome crust" to cover his once "smooth body" (1.5.79-80).

Sounds pretty rank to us.

Hamlet's Costume Changes

Early on in the play, we learn that Hamlet's all black get-up seems to be getting on his mom's nerves. (Good to know that some things haven't changed since 1600.) But why?

Well, Hamlet wears an "inky cloak" because he's in mourning for his dead father—but he's the only one in court still wearing black. Now that Claudius is king, the happy couple wants everyone to forget about Old Hamlet. So, Hamlet's black attire sets him apart from everyone else —just like his grief makes him an outsider in the cheerful court. (When the play's staged, Hamlet's black clothing really stands out, especially when the director positions him off to the side of stage while the rest of the court is in the center.)

But don't tell Hamlet that his clothes reflect his grief —he might jump down your throat, as he does here when his mom asks him why he "seems" so sad:


'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly
(1.2.80-86)

In other words, Hamlet objects to the idea that any outward signs (dress, behavior, etc.) can truly "denote" what he's feeling on the inside (which is rotten). Hamlet's "suits of solemn black," he says, can't even begin to express his grief and anguish.

Later on, however, Hamlet changes his tune about what it is that clothing or costume can "denote." After he decides to play the role of an "antic" or madman, he does a costume change. Check out Ophelia's description of Hamlet:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.
(2.1.87-94)

If we assume that Hamlet makes himself appear disheveled in order to convince Ophelia that he's lost his mind, then we can also assume that Hamlet is banking on the convention that one's physical attire is a reflection of one's state of mind. And it works. Ophelia and Polonius are convinced that Hamlet is mad.

At the same time, we know (at least, we think we know) that Hamlet isn't really mad. So is he right after all, that clothes don't indicate anything about the state of mind? If he is—and we suspect that he is—then this is a pretty mind-blowing statement for Shakespeare to make: there can be a difference between the outside and the inside. And that difference, dear Shmoopers, is called interiority.

Welcome to the next 400+ years of literature.

Flowers

When Ophelia loses her mind in Act IV, Scene v, she starts handing out flowers to everyone around her. Sure, she talks directly about the symbolic meaning of those flowers, but what's also important is who might be getting these flowers.


There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that's for thoughts. […]
There's fennel for you, and columbines.
There's rue for you; and here's some for me; we
may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. You must wear your
rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would
give you some violets, but they withered all
when my father died.
(4.5.199-201, 204-209)

Fennel symbolized strength and praiseworthiness, columbine symbolized folly, daisies symbolized innocence, and violets symbolized faithfulness and modesty. So which flowers belong to which characters? Does Ophelia give the rosemary (for remembrance) to an invisible Hamlet, praying he hasn't forgotten about her? Does she give the rue (another word for regret) to Gertrude, who may be regretting her hasty marriage to Claudius?

And if she's with-it enough to match the right flower to the right character, how crazy is she, really?