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
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
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
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
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) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletgravediggers.html >.