What if, at our birth, we were also given our grave? Like – you welcome a child by preparing its place in the earth. You can go and visit your grave throughout your life, know where you will finally stop, where you will end up. Not when, of course. But where. I wonder how that would impact one’s life – to be that acutely aware of your death. Perhaps it’s like that for people who had family graveyards or mausoleums or for church officials who knew they’d be buried in the churchyard. It’s not quite like knowing the exact spot. But it might be pretty close – to just see the end and the beginning simultaneously.
If this were a riddle, the answer would be a child – for a child is neither man nor woman.
But – luckily that is not the situation here, as nothing kills comedy quicker than a dead child. Dead baby jokes may have been all the rage in elementary school but that is due primarily to the shock value, I think – and perhaps to a lot of kids having annoying baby siblings. Otherwise – even a hint of dead children will murder any hope of comedy happening in its wake.
Hamlet thinks he’s got this game figured out.
Oh. It’s not a man…I see you’re splitting hairs about whomever this grave is for.
Ah ha! Must be a woman then. Of course.
I love that the gravedigger will not let him win. No one else in this play can match Hamlet with his language games. But this gravedigger can.
There’s something about this line that calls to mind some of the exchanges in Twelfth Night – Viola talking about her father’s daughter who loved a man, for example – or Feste splitting hairs with language. There is a rhythm to this kind of comedy. This moment links back to Hamlet toying with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern earlier, when “man delights not me.”
It all just has comedy rhythm and it is fun to play with gender in comedy.
The success of this joke depends on the assumption of the Default Man. When Hamlet says “man” he means human because the sense, for time immemorial, has been that men are the standard humans and women are the deviation. So everyone always starts with man first – as in, is it a normal person or a woman?
I would actually love to see this scene played with a female gravedigger and a male Hamlet who might, condescendingly, ask his next question, as a concession to the lady gravedigger. Or even better – what if the gravedigger were non-binary and Hamlet’s questions are not just part of a vaudeville routine but also an attempt to engage with the gender of the person before him.
If we could pass quickness to one another, quickness in the sense of life, that would be an interesting world. Mothers would almost always give life to their children. Lovers would keep passing life back and forth between them. “I’ll die for you.” “No, I’ll die for you!” “No, I’ll die for you!” “No – I give MY life to YOU!” Being a lover would become quite hazardous to one’s level of life.
But in a way, we do give one another life. We energize each other with love, with attention, with affection, with inspiration.
The world seems ever more full of liars than ever before and bold-face liars, no less. It starts to feel as though truth itself were under assault, that in the face of such astonishing perfidy, facts and truth and justice might all be submerged in the swamp of mendacity.
There is such poetry in the evolution of language. Now, quick means, almost exclusively, rapid. We understand it when paired with the dead, as death’s opposite but we almost never describe the living as the quick anymore. But that is how the word began. To be quick once meant to be alive. That’s it. But because life is brief and flies so quickly – the word began to also mean fast.
And life is so quick that quick no longer means life, it is now pure speed. Quickly, a life, a quickness, evolves into something else entirely.
That is a lot of repetition of “it.” In’t, in’t, it. The assonance is really quite extraordinary, as well. It reminds me of this exercise that my grad school advisor used to do with students. He’d have everyone read their text with the vowels only. It made everyone sound (and feel) ridiculous but occasionally, that sort of pedantic exercise yielded some interesting results. This is a line that might really deliver some juice that way.
If you dig it, it is yours – no matter who lies in it after. Or perhaps it changes ownership once a body is laid in a grave? It starts as the maker’s and shifts to the body’s once it has been covered over. The hole, now filled, no longer belongs to the hole maker.