In this lesson, we will study the context and meaning of a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.’ In the quote, we see a scared young prince who’s coming to terms with death and growing more courageous.
The Quote in Context
‘Alas, poor Yorick!‘Have you ever heard this phrase? It is the beginning of a quote in Act V of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,.
It is spoken by Hamlet, the play’s central protagonist, to his friend Horatio. They are in a graveyard, and Hamlet has just picked up the skull of Yorick, who was a jester in Hamlet’s father’s court. Through the entire play up to this point, Hamlet has been mulling the problem of death. His father has died, and he knows that if he avenges his father’s death, he probably will die as well. His revenge is the central conflict in the play.
The quote is one of Hamlet’s many musings about the problem of death and of dying and what it means to have one’s existence washed away by time.
The part of Hamlet’s speech most often quoted is the first few lines, or even the first few words, but to understand the quote we have to examine the broader speech. Hamlet’s speech here seems to go back and forth between addressing both Horatio and Yorick. Picking up Yorick’s skull, he says to Horatio:‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellowof infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hathborne me on his back a thousand times; and now, howabhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims atit. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I knownot how oft.‘Here he seem to address Yorick directly:‘Where be your gibes now? yourgambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not onenow, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?‘It’s uncertain to whom Hamlet addresses the last part. It could be Hortatio or Yorick:‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, lether paint an inch thick, to this favour she mustcome.
. .‘While this is a fairly brief speech, there are several important qualities to notice:
Hamlet’s Horror at the Stillness of Death
Looking at the skull, Hamlet is preoccupied with the discrepancy between Yorick’s face as he remembers it and the Yorick face he holds in his hand. That Yorick was a jester (something like a clown) is significant.
Hamlet remembers the man’s vibrant smile, his laughter, and energy. He remembers this man as being wildly charming, an example of full liveliness. But the skull in his hand stands in full contrast to that. As an object, it illustrates starkly how completely death has undone Yorick, how it has taken everything that was the man’s identity made it nothing at all – just bone. Obviously, this affects Hamlet deeply. He feels his ‘gorge rim at it,’ which is to say he feels that he’s about to vomit.
At the end of the speech, when Hamlet tells either Horatio or Yorick ‘to get to my lady’s chamber.‘ Exacly who Hamlet is addressing isn’t entirely clear, but they are to deliver a message for him. They are to tell her she can ‘paint an inch thick. . . to this favour she must / come.
. .’ Hamlet is demonstrating a distrust of women that he has shown all throughout the play. In particular, he doesn’t trust his girlfriend, Ophelia, whom he suspects is spying on him (she is, it turns out, though not intentionally).
What Hamlet takes as the symbol of this distrust is her use of makeup – the ‘paint’ in this quote. The paint also is a reference to the clown paint Yorick would have worn. That a woman would ‘cover up’ her true face with a more carefully designed, or artful face, seems dishonest to him and becomes a metaphor for other, more significant dishonesty. What he sees when he beholds Yorick’s skull, however, is that beneath that dishonesty is some truth Ophelia can’t escape.
In other words, he sees in the skull some evidence that he is right, and Ophelia is wrong, and wants to use that skull to score points in his relationship.
Finally, what we see in this quote is Hamlet arriving, or almost arriving, at the acceptance of his own death that will allow him to avenge his father. Looking at Yorick, he sees that all life is lost, one way or another, and that he can’t protect his life by ‘playing it safe’ and not avenging his father’s death. For the rest of Act V (the final act of the play), the audience sees a more courageous, defiant Hamlet – a young prince who knows what he must do and is less afraid of his own demise.
In this quote from the final act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, we see the central character pass through a range of difficult emotions.
First, he’s mourning the loss of a beloved friend. Second, he’s coming to accept what death truly is, and how it’s inescapable. Third, he’s using his recognition of death to express a suspicion of women – and of his girlfriend in particular.
And finally, he’s seeing in his recognition of death the fact that he cannot truly protect his own life, and so should, while he still can, devote his life to something he believes in.