In Brief

In addition to the overlay of fictive underworlds created by allusions to the epic poems of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, Hades also draws upon the quite realistic, this-worldly graveyard of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The previous chapter has shown that Bloom knows this work, well enough even to quote from it, and in Hades he thinks five or six times of the play's countless references to dead bodies. Several of these thoughts have to do with putting corpses into the ground, and the need to maintain a sense of humor about the grim business.

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Sitting in the carriage outside Dignam's house Bloom ponders women's work of laying out men's corpses, a job performed "Huggermugger in corners." This word, which the OED traces back to the early 16th century, refers to secrecy or concealment, and in Hamlet it is applied to the attempt to conceal Polonius' death. After stabbing him, Hamlet rudely drags his corpse offstage to hide it: "This man shall set me packing; / I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room" (3.4.211-12). Then, after Claudius gets him to say where he stashed the body––"if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby" (4.3.35-37)––the king too hides it, ordering that it be buried secretly. He soon has reason to regret the shady dealing, as he confesses to Gertrude: "we have done but greenly / In hugger-mugger to inter him" (4.5.83-84).

Bloom no doubt recalls these lines because the thought of concealing bodies "in corners" confirms his sense of the human need to hide the ugly fact of death: "Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot." He is probably also tickled by the comical sound of "huggermugger," so similar to "slipperslappers" in the next sentence, because the entire chapter shows him responding flippantly to funereal solemnity. Later, when he is walking through the cemetery, he thinks of both the gruesomeness and the comedy of burial, in successive paragraphs that recall the graveyard scene in Hamlet.

The first of these paragraphs consists of Bloom's grisly thoughts about decomposition:

I daresay the soil would be quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails. Charnelhouses. Dreadful. Turning green and pink decomposing. Rot quick in damp earth. The lean old ones tougher. Then a kind of a tallowy kind of a cheesy. Then begin to get black, treacle oozing out of them. Then dried up.
It is hard not to hear in this entire meditation, as Thornton does in the sentence about "lean old ones" being tougher, an echo of the gravedigger's answer to Hamlet's question, "How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere he rot?" (5.1.163-64). It depends, says the gravedigger: "we have many pocky corses, that will scarce hold the laying in" (166-67). At the opposite extreme from these pre-rotted corpses are the bodies of tanners, which may last eight or nine years: "his hide is so tann'd with his trade that 'a will keep out water a great while, and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body" (170-72).

In the following paragraph Bloom thinks that despite all this horror the caretaker comes to work with a smile:
He looks cheerful enough over it. Gives him a sense of power seeing all the others go under first. Wonder how he looks at life. Cracking his jokes too: warms the cockles of his heart. The one about the bulletin. Spurgeon went to heaven 4 a.m. this morning. 11 p.m. (closing time). Not arrived yet. Peter. The dead themselves the men anyhow would like to hear an odd joke or the women to know what's in fashion. A juicy pear or ladies' punch, hot, strong and sweet. Keep out the damp. You must laugh sometimes so better do it that way. Gravediggers in Hamlet. Shows the profound knowledge of the human heart. Daren't joke about the dead for two years at least.
Social mores may prescribe a respectful period of not joking about the dead, but O'Connell jokes about heaven having closing time like a pub before the holes are even filled. Bloom is quite right to hear in this an echo of Hamlet's gravediggers. As they dig a hole for Ophelia the clever one jokes about suicide ("he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life"), the nobility of gardeners and diggers (clearly Adam "bore arms": "could he dig without arms?"), and the riddle of who builds the strongest structures (the gravedigger: "the houses he makes lasts till doomsday"). He gets the best comic line of the scene when Hamlet asks about the grave he is digging. What man is it for? No man. What woman? No woman. Then for whom? "One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her soul, she's dead" (135-36).

Hamlet does not yet know that Ophelia has drowned and been denied burial in consecrated ground, so the humor is quickly followed by anguish. This may perhaps show the "profound knowledge of the human heart" that Victorians supposed Shakespeare to possess. It certainly does show his remarkable ability to leaven tragedy with comedy. In Elsinore's graveyard and at the gates of Macbeth's castle, "suffering takes place," as Auden writes in Musée des Beaux Arts, "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." Life goes on, and to the extent one can make light of its insupportable griefs, one should. As Bloom says, "You must laugh sometimes."

JH 2022
Hamlet dragging Polonius' body offstage, in a drawing by an unknown artist. Source:
Grave-digger, 1871 pencil on paper drawing by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov, held in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Cliff Saunders as the gravedigger in a 2018 production by the Toronto Theatre. Source:
Tony Bingham as the gravedigger and Matthew Amendt as Hamlet in a 2018 production by the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Source:
Billy Crystal as the gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film.