Reports last month suggested that the skull of playwright William Shakespeare was no longer in his grave. A radar scan carried out for a documentary on Britain’s Channel 4 showed a gap in the skeleton inside what’s believed to be the Bard’s tomb at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church, possibly affirming the lore that 18th-century grave robbers made away with his cranium. While it’s not possible now to confirm whether or not Shakespeare’s body rests intact, his name is associated with a long history of human skulls, particularly with people who posthumously took on the role of Yorick in Hamlet.
In 2008, David Tennant in his portrayal of Hamlet asked in his Act 5 soliloquy “where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs?” of the skull of composer and pianist André Tchaíkowsky. As Stephen Adams at the Telegraph reported, getting the role was one of Tchaíkowsky’s last wishes before he died in 1982 of cancer, and he’d included a proviso for his body’s donation to science that his skull “be offered by the institution receiving my body to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in theatrical performance.” But he’s only one in a long line of Yoricks known to grace the stage after the flesh was pulled from bone.
For example, there’s John Reed, who worked as a stagehand at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in the 19th century. As the theater’s website explains, he stated in his will that he “wanted his skull separated from his body, duly prepared, and used to represent the skull of Yorrick in Hamlet. His wish was granted, and the skull is signed by many famous actors of the day who performed in Shakespeare’s play.” Macy Halford in the 2009 article “Skullduggery” for the New Yorker, noted that another man named Juan Potomachi in 1955 “promised two hundred thousand pesos to the Teatro Dramático in Buenos Aires, on the condition that his skull be used as Yorick in any future productions of Hamlet,” a proposition that was apparently accepted.
Not all would-be Yoricks, wishing their visage exhumed from the graveyard for contemplation by the Prince of Denmark, were so lucky. Adam Selzer wrote for the Order of the Good Death that comedian Del Close had intended to bequeath his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for such use when he died in 1999. Alas, his partner Charna Halpern was unable to facilitate the act before his body needed to be relocated from the morgue, so instead a symbolic skull was obtained from a medical supply company. And Jonathan Hartman, an actor who wished to be part of the Royal Shakespeare Company in life, had his grand plans of participating in death thwarted. As David Lister reported for the Independent in 1995, a spokesperson with the company said they “couldn’t use a real skull on stage as bone is too brittle and the skulls get some rough handling.”
What does it matter if the skull is real, if there’s a person behind the sardonic death smile of the late court jester? Elizabeth Williamson of Evergreen State College wrote in a paper entitled “Yorick’s Afterlives: Skull Properties in Performance” that the “reverent treatment of such skulls resists the play’s own warnings about the anonymity of death, but it also attempts to resist the impermanent quality of the theatrical medium itself.” The Shakespearean actor George Frederick Cooke, for instance, who died in 1812, was strongly associated with the role after his death, when his physician is said to have procured his skull, and it was purportedly later employed for the disembodied role. (The rest of his mortal remains are still in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Lower Manhattan, while what’s said to be his skull is now at Scott Library at Thomas Jefferson University.) Another skull at the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library at the University of Pennsylvania is still getting parts; according to the library it was “recently appearing as Vindice’s murdered mistress in a student production of Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.”
Some actors feel that having a real skull is important to their portrayal of Hamlet, including Jude Law, who in 2009 insisted on using one in a West End production of Hamlet (it was acquired from a Salt Lake City dealer, donor name left anonymous). Paul Menzer wrote in the 2015 book Anecdotal Shakespeare that “what allows Yorick to ripple with life — if only for a moment — is the overlay of a fictional persona on the presence of a particular person, which suggest in the end we’re all skulls in disguise.” And Hamlet cradling that skull and muttering “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him” remains the most popular visual depiction of actors in the role.
The first attributed illustration of Hamlet with a skull dates back to the 18th-century engraver John Hall, but that was just the start. In January, a £2 coin emblazoned with a skull was released by the UK’s Royal Mint in honor of Shakespeare. Even if the bard’s own skull is difficult to pin down, this symbol of mortality as a living vanitas remains a central feature of his work, reflecting the nebulous space between life and death that was so often evoked in his writing.