The Hamlet Skull Scene: Symbolism & Significance✔️ (2022)

The ‘Hamlet skull scene’ – most commonly known as the ‘gravedigger scene’ appears in William Shakespeare‘s famous tragedy Hamlet.

In this article, we’re going explore the significance of this scene and explain what is all means – the context, whose skull it is, allusion in the scene, and symbolic references to the skull and death in the play.

Where does the skull appear in Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

The skull appears in Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet. This scene, commonly known as the “gravedigger scene”, was used by Shakespeare to create some comic relief in the tragic Hamlet plot.

Generally, comic relief is meant to lessen the dramatic tension, and to give some sort of relief to the audience by injecting humorous or ironic elements into the play. But, in the case of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the comic relief is more than first meets the eye.

(Video) William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' explained: characters, themes & symbols | Narrator: Barbara Njau

Like in Hamlet, the gravedigger scene uses comedy to comment on larger issues regarding life, death, and Christianity. This portion of this scene where Hamlet is conversing with a skull introduces much complexity. Hamlet’s monologue centered on the skull revolves closely around the vanity of life and the existential crisis within a man.

The Hamlet Skull Scene: Symbolism & Significance✔️ (1)

Yorick’s skull from the gravedigger scene

How is the skull discovered?

The famous skull is first introduced to the play by a gravedigger, who is helping to prepare a grave for recently dead Ophelia.

Suddenly, Hamlet and Horatio enter the scene. They are crossing the graveyard, and, seeing two gravediggers working, they stop to talk with them. During the conversation, one gravedigger shows the skull to Hamlet. Thereafter Hamlet takes the skull from him and starts to brood upon it in the play.

Let’s have a look at the actual conversation between Hamlet and the gravedigger, made famous by Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ line:

Gravedigger: (indicates a skull) Here’s a skull now. This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) 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 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 chapfallen? 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.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

(Video) Hamlet by William Shakespeare | Act 5, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

(Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1)

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio…”. This quote expresses the relationship between the two, Hamlet and Yorick, in the protagonist’s childhood. His old mate’s skull reminds him of his own existence as well as his past. It also sparks some deeper questions in Hamlet’s mind.

The Hamlet Skull Scene: Symbolism & Significance✔️ (2)

Kenneth Brannagh as Hamlet looks at Yorick’s skull

Who is Yorick in Hamlet? A brief overview

Yorick does not play any major role in Hamlet, but his skull does! In the Hamlet skull scene, it is Yorick’s skull that Hamlet holds as he speaks.

Yorick was the jester of the king. A jester is the shortened name of a court jester or simply a fool. In the Medieval age and the age of Renaissance, a jester entertained the royal court with his slapstick humor, doggerel verse, and funny storytelling. A jester did not hold high esteem in medieval society but he was a favorite of the royal family and the courtiers. (Read more about Shakespeare’s fools.)

The skull of Yorick was there in the graveyard for twenty-three years. The gravedigger knew him and his skull well, andrefers to him as “a whoreson mad fellow”. However, Hamlet takes the skull from the gravedigger and starts to contemplate on different issues.

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First of all, he introduces the character of Yorick to the audience. According to Hamlet, Yorick was “a fellow of infinite jest, of excellent fancy.” Yorick’s imagination power and his attitude of fun making were appealing to Hamlet when he was a child. In his childhood, Yorick put him on his “a thousand times” and played with him. Hamlet is sad about the death of his old playmate. The inevitability of death snatched Yorick away from poor Hamlet.

Yorick’s skull: Significance in Hamlet

Yorick’s skull has symbolism and significance in reference to the themes Shakespeare adopted in Hamlet. Let’s look at these in more detail:

Vanity of life

Yorick’s skull reminds the audience of the vanity of human life. Hamlet holding the skull in his hand portrays the futility of the life of the court jester Yorick. Once, he amazed the court with his genius, now lying in a lonely graveyard with others beneath his intellectual prowess. Is there any need to put extra effort into one’s life, if it imply leads to the grave?

The symbolism of life and death

The symbolic quality of Yorick’s skull is not a new thing to talk about. Shakespeare used such dramatic instruments to squeeze the symbolic essence out of it. Like the dagger in Macbeth and the skull in Hamlet. Yorick’s skull in the Hamlet skull scene is a symbol of death, the ultimate destination of life. Hamlet holding the skull represents the duality of life and death. Hamlet symbolizing life, the skull in his hand portraying death. It is just a hand’s distance between them!

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

By using Yorick’s skull in Hamlet, Shakespeare employed the famous theme of the period. It is “Memento mori“. This Latin phrase means, “remember that you have to die”. Yorick’s skull in this scene depicts the theme of the inevitability of death. It reminds us of the famous quote of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Yes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet skull scene has influenced many writers!

Existential crisis

In the Hamlet skull scene, Yorick’s skull puts Hamlet in an existential crisis. Hamlet is reminded of his own existence by the decaying old skull. Hamlet thinks about Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar after seeing the skull. They had achieved a lot, but still ended up being dust particles. Hamlet’s existence in this world is just like the dust, it shifts from the passages of time, and takes new embodiments. The skull drives Hamlet to brood over how futile his life is.

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The human body as a rotten warehouse

The Hamlet skull scene has another symbolic yet ironic reference to the human body. Yorick’s decaying and foul-smelling skull presents the image of a human body that is rotting. It stores different ideals, physical glamour, and, most precious of all, our soul. At the end of the day, when the bird comes out to fly, it starts to rot like a potato. Hamlet refers to it by the smell of the skull and his statement about Ophelia’s makeup:

Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.

Frequently asked questions about Hamlet skull

What does the skull represent in Hamlet?

Yorick’s skull in the Hamlet skull scene/gravediggers scene symbolizes the futility of life, the inevitability of death, and the vanity of the human body.

What does Hamlet say to Yorick’s skull?

In the Hamlet skull scene, after taking Yorick’s skull from the gravedigger says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio…” Thereafter he recollects briefly his childhood episode of Yorick and him playing together.

Why does Shakespeare have a skull?

In the Hamlet skull scene, William Shakespeare implements Yorick’s skull as a dramatic instrument. It represents the theme of “memento mori” and forms the dramatic basis of the play. Using the skull, Shakespeare portrays the futility of life and inevitability of death symbolically.

What happened to Yorick?

Yorick died twenty-three years ago in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. According to the plot of the play, Yorick was a jester at the king’s court. He was also well acquainted with the prince, Hamlet. They both played and enjoyed together in Hamlet’s childhood days. In the Hamlet skull scene, Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull and contemplates on the vanity of his own life.

FAQs

What does the skull symbolize in Hamlet? ›

Yet upon looking at Yorick's skull, Hamlet suddenly feels sickened. He realizes what becomes of even the best of people after death—they rot away. For Hamlet, Yorick's skull symbolizes the inevitable decay of the human body.

Whose skull does Hamlet hold up what does Hamlet tell Horatio about that person why is this symbolism? ›

Hamlet picks up a skull, and the gravedigger tells him that the skull belonged to Yorick, King Hamlet's jester. Hamlet tells Horatio that as a child he knew Yorick and is appalled at the sight of the skull.

Who was Yorick Why is Hamlet so struck by his skull? ›

The skull of Yorick, the former jester of Hamlet's late father, represents the inevitability of death and the existential meaninglessness of life in light of this fact.

What does Hamlet mean when he holds Yorick's skull and says Alas poor Yorick I knew him Horatio? ›

Considering the skull, Hamlet speaks as if Yorick is alive before him, uttering these words in Act-V, Scene-I, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow/ of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” This phrase tells us that Hamlet is contemplating the temporary nature of life, as he looks at Yorick's skull.

What do skulls represent? ›

The most common symbolic use of the skull is as a representation of death, mortality and the unachievable nature of immortality. Humans can often recognize the buried fragments of an only partially revealed cranium even when other bones may look like shards of stone.

What is the significance of the various skulls the gravedigger? ›

What is the significance of the various skulls the gravedigger digs up during this scene? How do they contribute to the evolution of Hamlet's understanding of death? First, the skulls emphasize the end of physical life on earth and physical decay that follows death.

Who does Hamlet hold up the skull of? ›

Hamlet meditating upon the skull of Yorick has become a lasting embodiment of this idea, and has been depicted by later artists as part of the vanitas tradition.

Is Hamlet holding a skull in To Be or Not To Be? ›

Hamlet is commonly depicted as reciting the first line while holding a skull, although both occur at separate times; the soliloquy is done in Act III, Scene I, while the contemplation of the skull is done in Act V, Scene I.

What is Hamlet's concluding thought after he has mused over the skulls and the idea of death? ›

What is Hamlet's concluding thought after he has mused over the skulls and the idea of death? In Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the main hero contemplates the certainty of death over the skull. It belongs to Yorick, a jester he once knew. In his thoughts, he concludes that death is an ultimate equalizer of all lives.

Is Yorick a man or woman? ›

Yorick is often the first to admit that he's just some dude. Beyond his love of magic tricks and sleight of hand, Yorick is like any other young man stumbling his way through life – relying on his politician mother to pay his rent, and proposing to his girlfriend far too early.

What does Hamlet contemplate while he holds the skull? ›

What does Hamlet contemplate while he holds the skull? the inevitability of death.

Who examined Yorick's skull? ›

The crossword clue One who exhumed Yorick's skull in Hamlet with 11 letters was last seen on the December 04, 2021. We think the likely answer to this clue is GRAVEDIGGER.

Who was Yorick and why is he important to Hamlet? ›

Who is Yorick? Yorick was the king's jester, who Hamlet knew well as a child. Part of the quote is Hamlet saying that he remembers how funny Yorick was, and how he rode piggyback on Yorick's back a thousand times.

What does 💀 mean in text? ›

Again, remember the Skull and Crossbones ☠️ emoji is used more as a warning, about something dangerous, deadly, or toxic (yes, it can be a person). The simple Skull emoji 💀 mostly pokes fun at death … or alludes to it in a friendly way.

What do 3 skulls mean? ›

Paul Cézanne c. 1900 Detroit Institute of Arts. A skull is a classic art "vanitas" motif. This Latin word means "vanity" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

What is a skull? ›

Listen to pronunciation. (skul) The bones that form the head. The skull is made up of cranial bones (bones that surround and protect the brain) and facial bones (bones that form the eye sockets, nose, cheeks, jaw, and other parts of the face).

How do Hamlet and the gravedigger view the sociological? ›

How do Hamlet and the gravedigger view the sociological implications of death differently ? Hamlet is surprised at how everyone is equal in death. The Gravedigger is indignant that those of noble birth maintain their status even after death.

Who are the gravediggers in Hamlet? ›

Like most Shakespearean fools, the Gravediggers are peasants or commoners that use their great wit and intellect to get the better of their superiors, other people of higher social status, and each other.

What does Hamlet's death symbolize? ›

Death would signify triumph of good over evil. Also, death solves Hamlet's dilemma of whether retaining moral integrity, nobility and rationality and will or giving in to apathy, cynicism and vengeance. Death offers him no choice. His capacity to choose and exercise free will is effectively curbed by death.

Who dies as a result of poisoning in the final scene of Hamlet select all that apply? ›

Hamlet, in a fury, runs Claudius through with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink down the rest of the poisoned wine. Claudius dies crying out for help. Hamlet tells Horatio that he is dying and exchanges a last forgiveness with Laertes, who dies after absolving Hamlet.

What are the 5 major themes in Hamlet? ›

Here are brief accounts of a selection of the major Hamlet themes of revenge, corruption; religion, politics, appearance and reality, and women.

Why is Yorick immune? ›

Powers. Plague Immunity: Due to handling his pet monkey Ampersand's feces, Yorick developed a resistance to the plague that killed all the other men on the planet.

How is Yorick immune? ›

It has since been learned the only real reason he survived the plague is due to the fact that he owned Ampersand, a Capuchian monkey who survived the plague. Handling Ampersand's feces and cleaning him up gave Yorick Ampersand's resistance to the plague as well.

Are Yorick and hero siblings? ›

Hero Brown is Yorick Brown's older sister, a paramedic and a Sarah Lawrence graduate who joined the Daughters of the Amazon after the plague. In the FX on Hulu T.V. series, she is portrayed by Olivia Thirlby.

What is the meaning of Yorick? ›

/ˈjɒrɪk/ /ˈjɔːrɪk/ ​a former court jester (= a man employed to amuse the king in the Middle Ages) whose skull is found by the men digging Ophelia's grave in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Hamlet picks up the skull and makes a famous speech, which begins: “Alas, poor Yorick.

Who dug up Yorick's skull in Hamlet? ›

The most likely answer for the clue is GRAVEDIGGER. We found more than 1 answers for One Who Exhumed Yorick's Skull In Hamlet.

Who hands Hamlet a skull? ›

Yorick
Hamlet character
Yorick's skull in the 'gravedigger scene' (5.1), depicted by Eugène Delacroix.
Created byWilliam Shakespeare
Portrayed byAndré Tchaikowsky

Who is Yorick and why is Hamlet talking about him? ›

Yorick was the king's jester, who Hamlet knew well as a child. Part of the quote is Hamlet saying that he remembers how funny Yorick was, and how he rode piggyback on Yorick's back a thousand times.

What does Hamlet's death symbolize? ›

Death would signify triumph of good over evil. Also, death solves Hamlet's dilemma of whether retaining moral integrity, nobility and rationality and will or giving in to apathy, cynicism and vengeance. Death offers him no choice. His capacity to choose and exercise free will is effectively curbed by death.

What is the significance of the opening scene in Hamlet? ›

The Opening Scene in Hamlet

Stand and unfold yourself.” The answer to the question of identity is declined. But then it is asked again in a more interesting way, as “unfold yourself”. This almost suggests opening oneself up, taking out one's identity, and showing it to the world.

What is the significance of the closing scene in Hamlet? ›

Hamlet has spent the whole play debating whether to avenge his father's death and/or to commit suicide, and the finale effectively enables him to perform both acts.

What does Hamlet contemplate while he holds the skull? ›

What does Hamlet contemplate while he holds the skull? the inevitability of death.

What is the Shakespeare play with the skull? ›

In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet famously holds up a skull, and for a couple of hundred years, a story has gone around that Shakespeare's own skull is missing from his tomb at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Why was a real skull used as a prop in Hamlet? ›

Tchaikowsky died of colon cancer at the age of 46 in Oxford. In his will he left his body to medical research, and donated his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company, asking that it be used as a prop on stage. Tchaikowsky hoped that his skull would be used for the skull of Yorick in productions of Hamlet.

Is the skull in Hamlet real? ›

The skull held aloft by actor David Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet was a real one, it has been revealed. Pianist Andre Tchaikowsky left his skull to the RSC when he died in 1982 in the hope it would be used on stage. But since his death at the age of 46, it had only been used in rehearsals.

Is Yorick a man or woman? ›

Yorick is often the first to admit that he's just some dude. Beyond his love of magic tricks and sleight of hand, Yorick is like any other young man stumbling his way through life – relying on his politician mother to pay his rent, and proposing to his girlfriend far too early.

Videos

1. Ophelia, Gertrude, and Regicide - Hamlet Part 2: Crash Course Literature 204
(CrashCourse)
2. The Hidden Meaning in The Lion King – Earthling Cinema
(Wisecrack)
3. Slavery, Ghosts, and Beloved: Crash Course Literature 214
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4. Shakespeare: The Genius we never knew
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5. Elements of Drama Lecture Part I
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