Alas, Poor Yorick!

What do you see when you hear the word “Shakespeare”? I’d guess that one of two images will probably come to your mind. Either you will conjure up a bald-headed, moustachioed man in a ruff, or you will see a man in black holding a skull in contemplation (often with a “To be or not to be” speech bubble. Perhaps you combine the two and see a bald man in a ruff holding a skull; you wouldn’t be the first. The image of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick in the graveyard scene has become one of the most famous pictures associated with Shakespeare and his works. The image is so popular in fact, that it has become divorced from its original context and become a symbol for anything vaguely Shakespeare-related. What, though, is behind this famous image? Is the man with the skull really a good image for all things Shakespeare?

Thomasin Bailey
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

The skull does not in fact coincide with the famous “To be or not to be” speech, but comes at a point in the play when its bearer is far more decisive. In Act V Scene 1 of Hamlet, the Danish prince returns from his sea voyage to find two gravediggers emptying a grave for a new incumbent. Hamlet takes up the skull and wonders who it might have been: lawyer, politician, or courtier. The point is, he cannot tell; however eloquent and powerful or foolish and unlucky the skull’s owner may have been, it is reduced to the same state by death and the earth. Hamlet learns from the gravedigger that the skull belongs to Yorick, the king’s jester. Hamlet remembers Yorick alive, how he, as a child, played with Yorick, kissed him, and rode on his back. Face to face with the skull this remembered physical affection sickens Hamlet: “And now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.” The most familiar faces and emotions are rendered unfamiliar by death. Hamlet meditates on the universality of this experience. He considers how every man, from the highest to the lowest, ends up in the same way. Although he has been told that this grave will hold “one that was a woman”, women do not enter much into Hamlet’s meditation. Even great conquerors like Alexander the Great and Caesar end up as dust. “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away”, he muses. Like Laurence Olivier, most Hamlets, including Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Jude Law, Rory Kinnear, and David Tennant, perhaps all, have held Yorick’s skull face to face with their own, as if Hamlet sees the skull as his mirror. Death, he realises, is the universal leveller, and will come to all: to kings, to princes, to fools, and to him. Yet seeing his mortality mirrored in the eye-sockets of the skull does not sink Hamlet back into inactivity, on the contrary, it spurs him on to action. It is only after this scene that Hamlet gets off his backside and does anything!

Very often in Shakespeare the idea of mortality spurs characters onward to action and to life. In Twelfth Night, for example, songs about mortality seem to urge the characters (and audience) to enjoy life and youth while they can. Whilst Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are carousing in Olivia’s house, Feste sings “Oh mistress mine, where are you roaming?” This little ditty is in the tradition of the carpe diem song or poem, very popular in the renaissance. “Carpe diem”, meaning seize (or harvest or pluck) the day, comes from a poem by the Roman poet Horace, in which he urges his companion to stop worrying about the future, which can never be predicted, and enjoy the here and now. The wider carpe diem tradition in Shakespeare’s day was all about coming up with clever ways of persuading people to sleep with you. You’ll have to decide whether you think this example from Twelfth Night would have worked on you:
“What is love? 'tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure.”
 In Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film of Twelfth Night Ben Kingsley, as Feste, and Imelda Staunton, as Maria, deliver a mournful duet of the song, with tears in their eyes, and meaningful glances that speak of personal disappointments unknown. What Nunn was going for, I think, was to evoke the bitter-sweet idea of lost youth and lost love, but this song is all about the future. Feste does remind his listeners that youth, and, by extension, life, does not last forever, but suggests that, rather than delaying, they get on with getting on! The idea of death here is, therefore, a reminder to live.

Feste’s final song in Twelfth Night, “Hey ho, the wind and the rain”, tells the story of a man from “a little tiny boy”, through “man’s estate”, to going to bed (either a deathbed or a coffin), and at each stage the rain rains regardless. The play end with a reminder of death, and the inexorable march of life. Who can be said to be an exception to this rule? Even Hermione’s statue ages. So the skull in Hamlet represents everyone. Unless you’re a forensic pathologist or archaeologist (or Emilia Fox – I’d guess she’s learnt quite a bit after all those years in Silent Witness) and you can tell the difference between skulls based on size and lumps behind the eye sockets, we all end up looking pretty much the same. The skull suggests we are all equal. As an image of mortality, the skull can also represent life and the need to live while we can. The play form itself seems to be a joyful reflection of the transience of life, only existing for its own duration, and then it is gone. In this single object then, we can see life and death, we can read immense joy and untold sadness, we are reminded of kings and fools, and we can recognise ourselves. In that case, I would argue, Yorick’s skull is a pretty good image for all things Shakespeare.

Thomasin Bailey
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals


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