Shakespeare on Show: Top Ten Exhibition – A Genuine human skull!

In this week’s Shakespeare on Show we’re looking at this genuine human skull which is on loan to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust from the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is currently on display at Nash’s House here in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the Top Ten exhibition.

A Genuine Human Skull from the Collections of the Royal Shakespeare Company

A Genuine Human Skull from the Collections of the Royal Shakespeare Company


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 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 on a roar?” (Hamlet, Act V, Scene i)

This often misquoted text is of course from the grave digging scene in Hamlet, Act five, scene one.  During this scene Hamlet and his friend Horatio happen across a group of grave diggers who, in the process of digging Ophelia’s grave (Horatio’s sister), unearth the skull of a jester from Hamlet’s childhood, Yorick. This encounter with Yorick’s skull encourages Hamlet to think about the subject of death, its inevitability and the disintegration of the physical body. For Hamlet, the contrast between his childhood memories of Yorick who was, “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” and his skeletal remains is a powerful one.

In fact, Hamlet appears to be obsessed with death and over the course of the play he dwells on it frequently. He thinks about his own death and in one of the most famous soliloquies from the play he contemplates whether or not suicide is morally acceptably in a painful world.

To be or not to be
To live or not to live!(Act 3, Scene 1)

Hamlet frequently longs from his own death but at the same time he fears that if he commits suicide then he will be condemned to hell as the teaching of the Christian Church prohibits suicide.

Shakespeare’s use of the skull in this scene can also be seen as an illusion to a common theme of the time, that of Vanitas or earthly vanity: the idea that death is unavoidable and the things or possessions of this life, although seemingly important, are in fact inconsequential.  Often depicted pictorially – young men, boys and women who are in the best of health are depicted looking at a skull. The idea was to impress on the viewer the transience of life- although these people are alive and healthy now, in time they too will die. For further information on this subject please take a look at Peter Hewitt’s blog from the Shakepseare in 100 objects series

Irving and the 19th Century

A further interesting point about this skull is that it is said to have been used by Henry Irving, one of the most prominent English stage actors of the 19th century, when playing the part of Hamlet.  It is also believed to be the skull of a convicted criminal who was hanged for his crimes. A common punishment for serious crime in the past was to have your body passed to the medical profession for dissection and study rather than burial. To me, this fact adds a rather garish side to an already ghoulish subject!


  • Liski

    Once my grandpa, when he was a student of a medical department, has taken a real skull from the anatomical theatre – for studying. In the evening he was late – the theatre was closed, so he was forced to bring the skull home. So, at first he scared some bullies who wanted to know what he was carrying in his bag. When my grandpa came home, he put the scull on a shelf into a wardrobe (they didn’t have any spare furniture). In the morning his cousin Olga (she wasn’t forwarned) opened the door of the wardrobe…

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.