The ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become one of the most famous and instantly recognisably theatre tropes – or, at least, those three words, ‘Alas, poor Yorick’, have. Perhaps the rest of Hamlet’s speech is less famous, and certainly many people misquote the next four words that follow ‘Alas, poor Yorick’; so a few words of analysis might help to illuminate the meaning of one of Shakespeare’s greatest meditations on mortality and the brevity of life. (We have analysed the play here.)
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 it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.
To contextualise Hamlet’s words: the ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ speech appears in Act V Scene 1 of Hamlet, during the scene in which Ophelia’s burial takes place. Until the arrival of Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, the mood of the scene is predominantly comic, and before Hamlet offers the above meditation on the fate of his father’s jester, there is a great deal of light-hearted mockery surrounding the other skulls and the people to whom they once belonged. Even before Hamlet and Horatio arrive at the graveyard, the two Gravediggers who are preparing Ophelia’s grave are providing comic relief: in some editions of Hamlet, they’re called ‘Clowns’ rather than Gravediggers.
As we can see from the speech quoted above, Hamlet says ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio’, rather than (as the line is often misquoted ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well’. Of course, Hamlet clearly did know Yorick well. Yorick was the king’s jester: that is, the jester to King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, who is himself dead (murdered by Prince Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius).
Yorick, being a jester, was ‘a fellow of infinite jest’ (a phrase David Foster Wallace co-opted for his famous novel, Infinite Jest), as we might expect. But the fact that he was a jester also creates a poignant contrast between the levity of living, or enjoying life (there are references elsewhere in Shakespeare to kings taking ‘delight’ in their jesters’ jokes and tricks) and the bleak reality of eventual oblivion: no matter how much fun you have while alive, you are destined to become no more than a lifeless skull, like Yorick. Philip Larkin said that ‘Being brave / Lets no one off the grave’. Being joyful doesn’t either.
Shakespeare deftly brings together these two aspects of the speech – the light-hearted communion that Yorick embodied in life, and the horror of our own mortality which his skull forces us (and Hamlet) to confront – through the clown’s stock-in-trade: the pun, or wordplay. ‘He hath bore me on his back a thousand times [i.e. given the boy Hamlet many a piggyback ride], and now how abhorred in my imagination it is.’ It almost makes Hamlet feel sick: his ‘gorge’ (or throat/stomach and general digestive tract, but also, perhaps, what’s in it) rises at the thought that this skull is all that’s left of the man who used to entertain him when he was a boy. Similarly, ‘infinite jest’ recalls Hamlet’s earlier speech in which he marvels at the amazing thing that is ‘a man’: ‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!’ Man may be ‘infinite’ in both ‘faculty’ and ‘jest’, but not in temporal terms: both jest and faculty (or ability) must come to an end with a man’s death.
Indeed, there is an intimacy to Hamlet’s reminiscences of his boyhood hours spent with Yorick, whose lips – now long rotted away from the skull beneath – he often kissed. But Yorick cannot respond: his ‘jibes’ or mocking jokes, his ‘gambols’ or playful games and tricks, are all gone. His merriment used to make the whole table roar with laughter.
But now, the skull of Yorick is fixed in a ‘grinning’ expression (with the teeth obviously displayed in a grin-like pose because those lips, which Hamlet used to kiss, are gone). Yorick would have been the first to mock such an expression in the face of another, but he cannot do so now. He is literally ‘chapfallen’. There’s potentially three meanings to this word here: first, Yorick is literally ‘chapfallen’ in that his ‘chaps’ or cheeks have fallen away from his face and rotted to nothing. Second, there’s perhaps an echo here of ‘crestfallen’, meaning depressed; and third, there is possibly another piece of wordplay, i.e. Yorick is a ‘chap’ (or ‘fellow’, to use Hamlet’s earlier word) who has ‘fallen’, i.e. died.
Picking up on the table motif, Hamlet now moves, in his speech, from the king’s dining table where Yorick used to make everyone roar with laughter, to the table of a lady’s chamber. Hamlet concludes his speech by rhetorically calling upon the skull of Yorick to travel to the lady’s dressing-table and tell her that plastering her face with make-up (i.e. to hide the signs of ageing from her face) will do her no good: the deathly appearance of a skull is the ‘favour’ or facial appearance she will attain, when she dies. No amount of makeup will save her.
When the Polish composer and pianist André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the recent RSC production of Hamlet starring David Tennant in the lead role, it was none other than Tchaikowsky playing the role of Yorick – or, to be more specific, his skull. Such a gesture brings home the poignant truth of Shakespeare’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ speech: that every skull we see was once a living, breathing human being, and everyone from the greatest and most gifted to the lowliest and most ‘ordinary’ must be reduced to such a state, in time.