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'Alas, Poor Yorick': Quote's Meaning & Overview

'Alas, Poor Yorick': Quote's Meaning & Overview
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  • 0:00 The Quote in Context
  • 0:55 Analysis
  • 2:20 Hamlet's Horror at the…
  • 3:10 Hamlet's Misogyny
  • 4:25 Hamlet's Resolve
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ben Nickol
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.

Analysis

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 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 rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft.
'

Here he seem to address Yorick directly:

'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 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, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come. . .
'

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.

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