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Carrying on from my previous piece on misapplying Shakespeare in general (and quoting Polonius in particular), I want to look at probably the most famous Shakespearean (mis)quotation.  I had to get around to this one sooner or later.  Yes, I’m doing The Bit With The Skull.

hamlet pointing


Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him [well]!

This misapplication involves mangling Hamlet’s line very slightly.  In the original it runs “Alas, poor Yorrick!  I knew him, Horatio” and the alteration obviously has the advantage of decontextualising the line.  Missing off the address to Horatio extracts it more effectively from the play and makes it that little bit more available for application in other situations.  That doesn’t mean that it has to be applied in the sense that Hamlet meant it, of course.  The times I can remember people saying “Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well!”[1] they were saying it ironically, often with one arm thrown out and the other hand smacked against the forehead.

Much after this fashion

Much after this fashion

Their gesture was meant to call attention to the gap between a situation and the supposedly overblown emotion being used to respond to it, but that gesture therefore assumed a particular meaning in the original.  It positioned Shakespeare as grand and dramatic, even melodramatic, in contrast to the nuances and complexities of real (or modern) life.  Tragic gestures are impossible in the present, it seems to say, and Shakespeare is unsuitably tragic.  Too extrovert, too unsubtle.

Of course this is not what we would probably understand as the meaning of the line in context.  Hamlet has just been considering the anonymous bones being dug up, reflecting that one skull might be that of a lawyer – “Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures and his tricks?  Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery?”  Another could have been “a great buyer of lands, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his pate full of fine dirt?”  After a discussion of the speed bodies rot at, the gravedigger shows him one which has been in the ground twenty-three years, prompting Hamlet to ask whose it is, since the man obviously knows.

The information that it belonged to the King’s jester evinces his “Alas, poor Yorrick!  I knew him Horatio”, and provides fodder for the same kind of demands: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols?  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.”  The “point” of the line being quoted is surely not the devastating emotional impact of seeing part of a dead friend’s body, but the fact that Hamlet, musing elaborately on the anonymity of death is confronted with actually knowing one of the skulls. It might jar us into realizing that the undifferentiated vistas of mortality which the Prince finds so absorbing are made up of individuals.  A fact which breaks up, for a moment, his use of them in his personal memento mori.

But not for long.  Once he has got over the surprise of finding a person attached to his prop, Hamlet puts it through the same ironic interrogation that he applied to the genuinely anonymous bones, and orders it away to do a little Elsinore slut-shaming.  It’s telling that even in death he treats Yorrick like a servant: instrumentalizes him first as a mirror for his personal mortality obsession, and then imagines using him to scare his girlfriend.  Hamlet’s words aren’t an explosion of melodramatic personal grief[2], they’re the hinge in this scene’s display of invincible self-involvement.  His inability to recognize Yorrick’s skull as the remains of a person, or to react appropriately to that fact, is the dominant implication of this line for me.

I stressed the way this misquotation seems to position Shakespeare, and not just Hamlet, as emotional and overblown, because the icon of the man holding the skull has become blurry over the years.  Perhaps most famously embodied in the modern era by Lawrence Olivier


Olivier with skull


it was reiterated


Branagh with skull


in various versions


Tennant with skull


but also somehow became attached to Shakespeare.


Shakespeare with skull


in a number of odd ways



This was presumably due to the central position Hamlet enjoyed in the Shakespeare canon for so much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and even more to the actors (male and female) who performed famous Hamlets.  But whatever the reason, there is a blurring in popular culture between Shakespeare and Hamlet which doesn’t occur with Lear, or Hal, or even Prospero.  (Mis)quoting the skull line, with accompanying gesture, makes a broader statement about the meaning assumed to attach to Shakespeare.  It’s an interesting example, because it doesn’t offer Shakespeare as a simple and unproblematic source of value.

The Yorrick line (and gesture) doesn’t necessarily involve dismissing Shakespeare, however.  Though it is not being applied literally, it can be used as a way to ironize emotion whilst also expressing it: borrowing Shakespeare’s words can both articulate loss and place the speaker at a safe distance since they are clearly someone else’s words.  And the very fact that a recognizable quotation from Shakespeare is being deployed hundreds of years later makes some implicit claim about the “timelessness” or relevance of his works.  But this quotation seems to have a conflicted relationship with the value Shakespeare can transmit, and what people assume they’re doing when they quote him.

[1] Which include one time I said it myself about a classmate who had just been told to go to the headmaster’s office, and was promptly picked up on the misquotation by a passing drama teacher…

[2] The assumption behind a cartoon I’ve seen which has a policeman putting his hand on a weeping Hamlet’s shoulder as he holds a skull, and asking “Can you offer a personal identification, sir?”.  The implied punchline is…well, you know.