A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hamlet #23 - Alas, Poor Yorick!

(Note: Bardseye is currently doing Hamlet, and taking a break from our usual hallucinatory Shakespearean commentary on current events. If you're entering the theater late, Hamlet: Act I, Scene I started twenty or so posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

Yet more support for the idea that in this play suicide was much on Shakespeare's mind (happily, he didn't go through with it) comes from the gravediggers' comic chat that opens Act V. The two men, called not gravediggers but clowns in the script, are talking about some woman who drowned, and whether the surrounding circumstances justify her being buried in hallowed ground:

1st Clo: "Give me leave. Here lies the water, good.
Here stands the man; good. If the man go to the water
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,
mark you that. But if the water come to him and
drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is
not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life."

In the end the second clown reaches this conclusion:

2nd Clo: "If this had not been a gentlewoman, she
should have been buried out of Christian burial."

The two clowns proceed to trade a series of groan-worthy puns that Bardseye will spare the reader. Hamlet, who is returning from his pirate adventure, and Horatio, who is accompanying him (recall those letters of Hamlet's), happen by. Since they have both been away from the court they are unaware of Ophelia's death. Shakespeare thinks having Hamlet chance across her grave as its being dug is a cute way of informing him. As Hamlet watches, one gravedigger throws a skull up out of the ground (cemeteries were recycled, or rather their contents were, in Merry Olde England):

Ham: "That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once…".

Hamlet gets into a conversation with the first gravedigger, who turns out to be infuriating in his literal-mindedness when Hamlet asks who he's digging the grave for:

Ham: "What man dost thou dig it for?"

1st Clo: "For no man, sir."

Ham: "What woman, then?"

1st Clo: "For none, neither."

Ham: "Who is to be buried in 't?"

1st Clo: "One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her
soul, she's dead."

Shakespeare would have been right at home in Vaudeville, and never more so than in Hamlet. What follows next is Hamlet's famous skull speech, addressed to a skull that the gravedigger has dug up. Being experienced in his trade, the gravedigger is able to identify the skull as that of Yorick, a court jester in Hamlet's youth:

Ham: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio, a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me
on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in
my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung the
lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be
your gibes now? You 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 favor she must come.
make her laugh at that…".

That last part about paint means to prevaricate, or put on makeup as a way of putting up excuses. "To this favor" means that his lady, as every lady, will however vain come at last to resemble Yorick. Beyond that, Hamlet basically says the same thing he said about the first skull. Bardseye can well see how thrilling an act of stagecraft it would've been to lift a (hopefully fake) skull up before an Elizabethan audience and address it. What tends to go unnoticed in this is how un-Christian Hamlet's musings are. The possibility that Yorick's eternal soul has been redeemed by his faith and virtue in life, rendering his skull an unremarkable relic, falls outside the frame.

Being Jewish, Bardseye probably shouldn't care. In Judaism, living a moral life and maintaining a relationship with G-d through fidelity to the Torah is what is expected. In Judaism, death itself falls outside the frame. But Hamlet hardly means this either. While Hamlet is able to recognize G-d for the purpose of registering his very legitimate complaints, he is both too proud and too separated from G-d (by his murderous intentions) to look to Him for any comfort or consolation.

But after all, Hamlet isn't seeking consolation; he's seeking revenge.

To be continued….

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