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Shakespeare's Fools: Yorick in Hamlet

From The Fools of Shakespeare by Frederick Warde. London: McBride, Nast & company.

"The King's Jester"

Hamlet, a young Danish prince, accompanied by his friend Horatio, stands by a low wall that encloses a graveyard watching an old sexton who is digging a grave. With professional unconcern the old fellow shovels out the earth, together with some human bones; amongst them two skulls, one of which he strikes smartly with his spade to imbed it in the soft earth, and prevent its rolling away.

Shocked at the apparent indifference of the old man to these dead relics, the prince advances, interrupts his work, and engages him in conversation. The grave-digger is a quaint, independent old fellow, and answers the prince's questions with humorous bluntness. The prince inquires, "How long will a man lie in the earth ere he rot?" After replying to the question, the sexton picks up one of the skulls from the mound of earth and asserts, "This skull hath lain i' the earth three-and-twenty years." "Whose was it" asks the prince. "A whoreson mad fellow's it was," replies the sexton, and then adds, "A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a' poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester."

Gently taking the grim remainder from the irreverent hands of the old grave-digger, and gazing at it with loving tenderness, the prince exclaims: "Alas, poor Yorick I - 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 I 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 in a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning! quite chap-fallen!"

For three-and-twenty years that skull had lain in the earth, till every vestige of its personality had been destroyed, and only the experienced eye of the old sexton could recognize it.

A chapless skull! dust and bones tossed up from the decaying earth from which they sprang, and to which, by the inexorable law of nature, they had returned; a skull that once was covered with skin and tissues, through which ran a myriad of arteries and veins, conveying the blood to and from the active brain that lay in the now empty shell. A skull that had crowned a frame, clothed like itself, intersected with nerves that connected the sensations of heart and brain, and canals that carried the vital fluids on their ceaseless course, giving the entire structure a living entity, and an individual personality; the personality of Yorick, jester to the court of Hamlet, King of Denmark.

Yorick! what a merry, loving soul he must have been, how full of fun and frolic. What pranks he must have played on those big, good-natured, long-haired Viking warriors, as they sat at the banquet table in the great hall of the castle of Elsinore. In fancy, I can hear their laughter at his madcap jests, and the deep roar of their voices as they join in the chorus of his merry songs.

I can see him in the churchyard, serious for a moment, sitting on an ancient tombstone, gravely watching the old sexton digging "a pit of clay"; the last resting place of folly and wisdom; but his fun-loving soul cannot long be restrained by even such solemn environment; so, furtively, the mad rogue purloins the bibulous old grave digger's flagon of Rhenish, standing near-by, and pours its contents over the head of the discomfited sexton; then, fleet as a deer he runs away, leaps the churchyard wall, and the faint echo of his merry laughter is the only solace for the old man's wrath.

Yorick! the lines are few, and the description brief that Shakespeare has given us of the man, but they are so pregnant with suggestion, so sweet in thought, and so tender in memory that he lives in our minds as completely as though he gamboled on the earth again, and laughingly jingled his cap and bells in our very ears.

How happy must have been those early days at Elsinore, when Hamlet was a child and Yorick his play-fellow. How they must have romped together in the gardens. What fun it was for the little prince to climb upon the jester's shoulders and race pick-back along the terraces, the boy's long fair curls blowing in the wind, and his merry laughter filling the air with music. How pleasant to sit in the shade of one of the big old trees in the park, and listen to the jester tell such interesting tales of the folklore of the country; of the traditions of the prince's warlike race, and the mighty deeds of his great Viking ancestors. Then there were stories, too, wonderful stories, of goblins, sprites and fairies who did such strange things that the relation of them almost frightens the little prince; but he is reassured by a smile, and, twining his arms round dear old Yorick's neck, and kissing the jester's lips, he nestles close to the breast of his motley friend in confident security.

Three-and-twenty years have passed since then; years of sorrow, years of pain I The prince is now a man, with more than a man's share of doubts, perplexities and cares: and yet at the sight of the bare, chapless skull of his dead play-fellow all the sweet and tender past comes back again.

What a tender pathos is mingled with the prince's philosophic reflections on the remains of his dead friend, as memory recalls each word and incident. It is indeed a reflex of Yorick himself, as the prince utters the grim jest, "Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come."

So must we all! The king lies in his marble sepulcher, the jester in his humble grave in the churchyard: but the ermine robe and motley coat, the crown and bauble will mingle their dust, and find equality in the universal democracy of death.

How to cite this article:
Warde, Frederick. The Fools of Shakespeare. London: McBride, Nast & company, 1915. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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