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.
Act Your Age
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.
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Symbol: Something that represents or suggests something else. Symbols often take the form of words, visual images, or gestures that are used to convey ideas or beliefs. A symbol is often a material object used to represent something invisible. Example: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred in my imagination is it! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now? ” (Hamlet, William Shakespeare, page 252: line 158-165) Function: Hamlet and Horatio venture into the graveyard and have a short conversation with the gravedigger. The grave digger holds up a skull sitting nearby and informs them that it is the skull of the king’s old jester, Yorick, who Hamlet was very close too as a child. Hamlet, in the height of his depression and obsession with death, is greatly affected by the image of the skull and the symbols it represents.
The skull brings back many memories of Hamlet’s seemingly happy childhood, thus representing Hamlet’s loss of happiness and innocence. At this time Hamlet stares death directly in the face, holding the skull with his own hands. The discovery of the skull also brings realization to everyone’s eventual disintegration, and the fact that everyone in society, no matter how rich or poor, is brought down to the same level in death.
Hamlet mentions that Polonius will be eaten by worms, that even kings are eaten by worms, and that dust from the decayed body of Alexander the Great might be used to stop a hole in a beer barrel. Alexander the Great couldn’t avoid death, neither can Hamlet. The skull and its many symbols emphasize the death of Hamlet’s father, Polonius and Ophelia, expose the pitiful state that Hamlet has been reduced to and encourage his thoughts of suicide and revenge.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Hamlet: Symbolism in Yorick’s Skull
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