I recently watched a Zoom presentation of 19th century mourning customs. Since I was an English teacher for a good part of my former life, I suppose it is not surprising that I began to think about how death and mourning are presented in literature.
The first thing that came to my mind was Hamlet’s musing on the skull of Yorick, perhaps the most often quoted passage from Shakespeare’s works. I had the great privilege of teaching Hamlet to high school seniors for many years—five classes a day. I read the play out loud, explained the unfamiliar language and discussed the play with my students. Before I retired I practically had the play memorized—all parts. But it never got old because Hamlet is one of the great works of English literature, maybe as Kenneth Brannagh has suggested, the greatest work of art across all disciplines.
Setting the Scene
Act I, Scene v–Hamlet and his friend Horatio are walking through the cemetery when they come upon a gravedigger busy digging a fresh grave. They engage in idle conversation. Hamlet asks how long a corpse will last before it rots. The gravedigger nonchalantly holds up a skull he has recently unearthed. “Here’s a skull now. This skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.” Hamlet asks whose it was. “This sir was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.”
The mood suddenly becomes serious as Hamlet reaches for the skull and holds it in his hands.
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 rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your jibes 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 thee 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. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
HORATIO: What’s that, my lord?
HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander look o’ this fashion
In the earth?
HORATIO; E’n so.
HAMLET: And smelt so? Pah!
HORATIO; E’en so, my lord.
HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Do high school seniors still study Hamlet?
Probably not. Too many triggers. But come to think of it, isn’t all great literature saturated with triggers that encourage us to think deeply about the disturbing aspects of life—like the inevitability of death?
Which raises the question: What is the purpose of education?
Andre Tchaikowsky, brilliant composer and pianist (not to be confused with the famous Russian symphonic composer) died in 1982, having bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The video above featuring David Tennant in the title role of the RSC production probably features Andre Tchaikowsky (his skull, that is) in the role of Yorick.