Symbols

Yorick’s skull

In Hamlet, Yorick’s skull is a symbol of death, which is one of the themes of the play. At the beginning of Act 5, Hamlet observes a gravedigger treating the remains of the deceased with carelessness and disrespect. He can hardly believe how much the dead are dehumanized in the process.

Unlike the gravedigger, Hamlet still sees the character of the deceased in the mortal remains and ponders who might be behind the bones, whether it was a politician, a courtier, or a jurist, for example. He feels that they should be given due respect even after death: “Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with ’em? mine ache to think on’t.” (5.1.82-84).

Finally, the gravedigger shows Hamlet the skull of a man he knew in real life: the skull of Yorick, who has been a jester in the royal court. Hamlet cannot stop himself from comparing the latter’s jolly and mischievous nature to the dead bones. He becomes downright nauseous when he can hardly see anything in common: “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?” (5.1.169-173).

The dead man has lost his former individuality. When Horatio confirms Hamlet’s assumption that all dead men look alike, he scornfully throws the skull on the ground (5.1.68). Yorick’s skull consequently symbolizes more than death. It symbolizes how individ...

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