In the start of Act V, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet and Horatio spy upon a clown, a grave maker. “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?” Hamlet asks in the 99th line. “Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” And later, in the same speech, “Is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures?” Looking upon the skulls and bones being tossed about by the grave digger, Hamlet perhaps realizes the futility of life and the tragedy of death. Nothing is left of the lawyer’s work—a lifetime of toil and accomplishment. None know the life of that skull.
Hamlet has already endured much to support his statements at the beginning of the final act. The murder of his father, for one thing, has been quickly put aside by his mother and uncle, and replaced with “incestuous pleasures.” Truly all that is left is Hamlet’s own memory and his father’s ghost, doomed to walk the earth for a period of time, for nothing the king had done in life now has much bearing—his armies cannot help him defeat purgatory, nor does the love for his wife keep his memory fresh in the Queen’s mind. Hamlet is even asked by his mother to “cast thy nighted color off” and to stop mourning, yet Hamlet is determined not to forget so simply his father’s death‚ a memory which plagues him and drives him in much of what he does until the very end of the play.
Yet perhaps Hamlet’s speech at this point is not so much a commentary on what has happened, but an anticipation of those things yet to come. Immediately following, Hamlet learns of the death of Ophelia, her life taken by her own hand. So what then does her life mean after death? What is left of her life? Nearly nothing—not “cases” or “tenures”—except, just as in King Hamlet’s death, a memory to cause only the rage and vengeance which culminates in the final scene. And there too, at the very end of the play, the same idea applies; the deaths of King Hamlet and Ophelia have done little else but to center their closest ones on revenge, a revenge which ends up murdering them all.
Perhaps then Hamlet’s discourse with Horatio as they stand watching the grave maker shows his own insights into life, a futile toiling which leaves little behind, and into death, the point from which a life’s work has no value. Even in the end, as young Fortinbras takes the throne, the lives of King Hamlet, the Queen and King, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, and of young Hamlet, their struggles resulting in nothing useful, mean little, quickly pushed aside to make way for Fortinbras, the new king of Denmark. But perhaps such is the meaning of life—to struggle and toil until death but to have in the end no meaning at all.