Hamlet and Skulls

That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not? Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1.

For Hamlet’s plot till now, see Hamlet So Far.

Act 5 Scene 1 (continued). Things were looking bad for Hamlet. After all, he returned to Elsinore with no army behind him. The only weapon he had was the truth. Maybe this was the naked he wrote about in his letter.

So the first thing Hamlet saw when he returned to Camelot, Goodman Delver digging a grave. “Who died? Who died?” Hamlet asked.

Gravedigger Goodman doesn’t answer.

Hamlet asked once again, “Who died? Who died?’ But afraid he’d get an answer.

“Not sure, my lord,” Horatio answered.

“Could it be a politician who lost his head over a tongue waggin? Or that fellow Cain, who started the murder business?”

“It could be,” Horatio answered.

“Could it be a lawyer Lady Worm has taken a liking to?” Hamlet asked. Mostly he was asking himself. “Perhaps I will speak to the fellow. Sir, whose grave is this?”

“Mine, sir,” the Gravedigger Goodman Delver said.

“I guess it must be yours since you are the one lying in it.”

“Well, it’s not yours since you’re lying outside it.”

“What man,” Hamlet asked, “are you digging the grave for?”

“For no man, sir.

“Then for what woman?”

“Not a woman either,” Gravedigger gives a smart answer. No respect in his voice. He’s a gravedigger and he’ll see them lying down like he’s seen so many before.

“Whose grave is it then?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked. One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her soul, she’s dead.”

“I tell you, Horatio, these peasants have lost all respect for their betters.”

“All the days of my life. At least, since the old King Hamlet defeated that Fortinbras.”

Hamlet likes this back and forth between the gravedigger and himself. It has allowed him to set aside his worries and have some fun, something he hasn’t had since before he went away to college and became the serious student his parents wanted him to be. “How long does it take a man to rot as he lies down the cold dead ground?”

“Eight or nine year. Nine year for a leather maker. He’s in the tanning trade and he gets a bit of a tanned skin himself. Now here’s a skull of a man who’s been dead some twenty years and more.”

Hamlet catches the skull. “Whose skull is it?”

“A crazy madman who poured milk on my head once as a joke. This same skull be the king’s jester. The fellow once named Yorick.”

Hamlet handles the skull tenderly. His voice suddenly becomes sad. “I knew this fellow. He was a man of infinite jest. A man of infinite jest.” He whispered words to the skull Horatio or the gravedigger cannot hear.

When Hamlet spoke to Yorick, he could have been Prince Hal addressing Falstaff. For Hamlet thought back to the days when Yorick was his tutor and nanny. The days he rode on Yorick’s back. The days when Yorick played toys with the young lad. “A man of infinite jest. And imagination.”

Then to Horatio he said, “How low we can fall.”

“Yes, my lord. ‘Tis true how low we can fall.”

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