The image of an actor holding aloft a skull is a familiar cinematic and literary trope. Theatre scholars have noted that the representation is so powerful that it often stands in as a metonymic representation of acting itself (Williamson 2011; Monks 2012). The image is, of course, drawn from Hamlet, a representation of the protagonist’s celebrated contemplation of the meaning of mortality in a Danish graveyard. On a recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, I was struck by the degree to which the familiar imagery of the skull permeated the town – it was plastered on baguette barges and sold as key rings and coffee mugs.
You could find it cast in statuesque bronze, adorning souvenir pencils and serving as a prop for street performers. The skull was everywhere, a recurring visual motif in the town’s marketing of its Shakespearean heritage. Ironically, the only place I wasn’t assaulted by cranial imagery was in the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is actually buried.
As a bioarchaeologist, I was in heaven. I’m always enthralled (well, occasionally also appalled, depending on anatomical accuracy) by popular representations of osteology. One of the first things I noticed was that only about half of the elements depicted were in fact skulls. To make a pompous osteonerd distinction, the term skull refers to a cranium with an associated mandible, while a cranium lacks a mandible. As you can see, most of the souvenir representations were skulls, while theatrical performances of Hamlet tend to employ crania.
The second thing I noticed was that many of the representations evinced distinctly masculine characteristics. I sidled up to a street performer’s prop when he was distracted by an audience, and noticed large mastoids, a prominent chin and sizeable brow ridges. The same characteristics stood out when I examined the Hamlet statue. Although, as my companion saliently pointed out, some of these traits could simply suggest an aged individual, especially since the sutures on the statue looked like they were becoming obliterated.
This plethora of cranial representations made me curious about how accurate the play itself was when it came to portraying Yorick’s skull. In particular, I wondered whether replicas of both male and female individuals were used during performances. After digging into the literature a bit, I found that a surprising number of productions of Hamlet have incorporated actual human remains into the scene:
- Perhaps because Yorick was such a lauded character in the play, individuals have long expressed an interest in posthumously taking on the role. Charles Dickens himself documented this impulse in a long-time theatre employee in the late nineteenth century. John Reed, a man who had worked for the theatre for over four decades, requested in his will that after he died his skull was to be given to the theatre to portray the skull of Yorick (Williamson 2011).
- The Walnut Street Theatre, in Philadelphia, was once possession of a human skull that was donated to the institution by a pharmacist named Carpenter. In true thespian fashion, the cranium was signed by at least nine major nineteenth-century actors who portrayed Hamlet at the WST (Williamson 2011).
- In a similar vein, the Victoria and Albert museum curates a near edentulous skull that is signed in blue marker by the cast of a 1980 Royal Court production of Hamlet. The skull was signed because it was entered as a raffle prize at the end of production. Because a rather squeamish donor “won” the prize, the skull was subsequently donated to the museum anonymously (Monks 2012).
- In 1999, comedian Del Close donated his skull to a theatre in Chicago, with the explicit wish that it be used in future performances of Hamlet. The skull was subsequently used in productions of Hamlet and several other plays. However, after reporters noticed a few apparent anatomical anomalies (namely, that the skull was held together with rusty screws), playgoers agitated for an investigation of its true provenience. Close’s partner, Charna Halpern, soon confessed that because of the difficulty she’d had finding anyone to clean and process the comedian’s cranium, she was forced to purchase a teaching skull as a replacement (Williamson 2011).
- The most famous use of human remains as a stage prop is the case of the skull of concert pianist André Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was evidently so moved by a performance of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company that he legally bequeathed his skull to the theatre, or so a bewildered Property Department Manager learned after receiving a call from a local undertaker in 1982. Less than two weeks later, to the dismay of the prop manager “and the evident delight of the department’s dog”(Aebischer 207), the company received the cranium. The RSC spent the next two years airing the skull on the roof of one of its buildings in order to bleach and dry it, but for decades afterwards consigned the remains to the theatre’s prop room. While it was used in rehearsals during the 1980s, actors expressed discomfort at employing it during actual performances. The skull’s time in the limelight did not come until 2008, during a run of Greg Doran’s production of Hamlet. After the media alerted to the use of an actual, provenienced human skull in the play, the RSC publicly proclaimed that it had replaced Tchaikovsky’s skull with an exact copy, so as avoid ‘distracting the audience’. The story does not end here, for in 2009, the RSC admitted to the Daily Telegraph that “rather than replacing it with its replica, Tchaikowsky’s skull had remained in the role, disguised as a copy of itself. Doran explained that “Andre’s skull was a profound memento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide”” (Monks 371). The best part of this story, to my mind, is a memo that Aebsicher discovered in the RSC’s records, which reads “If André Tchaikovsky isn’t actually playing Yorick this year, please can we have his skull back in the Collection for future reference, or whatever you do with the skulls of dead pianists.” (207).
- Perhaps due to the success of Doran’s Hamlet, in 2009 Jude Law insisted on employing a 200-year-old human skull as the key prop in his portrayal of the scene, suggesting that both artist and audience remain fascinated by the use of authentic human remains to this day.
This reliance on relics is nothing new. Williamson notes that a lively trade in human remains was characteristic of the tightly-knit world of Shakespearean actors: Edwin Booth (who portrayed Hamlet, appropriately enough) was given the tooth of another famous Shakepearean actor, George Fredrick Cooke, and other types of remains, like locks of hair, were exchanged with equal amounts of appreciation within the thespian community (2011).
What intrigues me most about the gravedigger scene is the way it has been argued to play upon the anonymity of death. Williamson underscores that:
“…Hamlet’s banter with the gravedigger reveals the persistent problem of death’s anonymity. The gravedigger… attempts to reassure the prince by providing a compelling identity for one of the skulls, but the doubling and tripling of skull properties in the scene, together with the joking dialogue that surrounds Hamlet’s speech, undermines the notion that we can firmly connect any one of them to a single individual” (2011, 14).
Mental instability and homicidal tendencies aside, this suggests to me that all the prince of Denmark really needed was a bioarchaeologist.
Aebischer, P. (2001). Yorick’s Skull: Hamlet’s Improper Property EnterText, 1 (2), 206-225
Monks, Aoife (2012). Human Remains: Acting, Objects, and Belief in Performance Theater Journal, 64 (3), 355-371 DOI: 10.1353/tj.2012.0082
Williamson, Elizabeth (2011). Yorick’s Afterlives: Skull Properties in Performance Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, 6 (1)
Image Credits: Photos of baguette barge, street performer and close-up of Hamlet statue can be found by clicking on links. Image of David Tennant found here.
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This is fascinating. I’m a Shakespeare nut, but I’ve never really looked into this angle before. Thanks!
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