Hamlet

Yorick’s Skull Symbol Analysis

Read our modern English translation.
Yorick’s Skull Symbol Icon

The skull of Yorick, the former jester of Hamlet’s late father, represents the inevitability of death and the existential meaninglessness of life in light of this fact. When Hamlet and Horatio come upon a pair of gravediggers working merrily in spite of their morbid task in the first scene of Act 5, Hamlet finds himself drawn to a skull one of the gravediggers has found and blithely tossed aside. As Hamlet examines the skull, he laments how death comes for everyone, stripping people of their dreams and personalities, annihilating all they were while they lived. When Hamlet asks the gravedigger who the skull belonged to, the gravedigger replies that it once belonged to Yorick. Hamlet remembers Yorick well, and laments to his friend Horatio that the same man who used to tell him jokes and give him piggy-back rides through the castle is now rotting in the ground. Horatio’s skull, then, is a symbol of Hamlet’s ever-deepening existentialism and indeed nihilism in the wake of his father’s death. When Hamlet encounters Yorick’s skull, it represents a point of no return in his inner intellectual and spiritual journey throughout the play. Hamlet is filled with a kind of nihilism as he realizes that all humans return to dust, no matter how they live their lives on Earth—whether a man is good or evil, joyful or plaintive, common or noble, he will wind up in the ground. Yorick’s skull and the revelation it inspires lead Hamlet to at last resolve firmly to kill Claudius in the following scene. However, Hamlet’s plans for securing vengeance will go awry and he himself is killed, an ironic confirmation of the inescapability of death.

Yorick’s Skull Quotes in Hamlet

The Hamlet quotes below all refer to the symbol of Yorick’s Skull. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Simon & Schuster edition of Hamlet published in 1992.
Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest… Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Horatio, Yorick
Related Symbols: Yorick’s Skull
Page Number: 5.1.190-198
Explanation and Analysis:
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Yorick’s Skull Symbol Timeline in Hamlet

The timeline below shows where the symbol Yorick’s Skull appears in Hamlet. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 5, Scene 1
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
When the gravedigger throws a skull out of the ground, Hamlet is further offended by the man’s casual handling of human... (full context)
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
...and the gravedigger estimates that decomposition takes about eight or nine years. Pointing out the skull on the ground, the gravedigger estimates that it has been in the ground for about... (full context)