Let me see. (takes the skull) 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. (5.1.168–171)
At first, Hamlet remembers Yorick, the court jester, fondly. He recalls Yorick’s good nature and his positive childhood experiences with him. Yet upon looking at Yorick’s skull, Hamlet suddenly feels sickened. He realizes what becomes of even the best of people after death—they rot away. For Hamlet, Yorick’s skull symbolizes the inevitable decay of the human body.
Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? (5.1.172–173)
Speaking to and about Yorick’s skull, Hamlet notes that Yorick’s lips no longer exist, which leads him to note that Yorick’s jokes, pranks, and songs are gone, too. The skull not only is evidence of the physical disintegration caused by death, but it also underscores that the very essence of a person comes to an end.
Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. (5.1.176–177)
Yorick’s skull has impressed upon Hamlet the decay of the human body after death. Here, Hamlet tells Yorick’s skull to go to his mother and tell her that no matter how much makeup she applies to appear young and beautiful, she too will die and decay one day. This act reveals Hamlet’s deep scorn for his mother for marrying his uncle and sharing his uncle’s bed so soon after his father’s death.
HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ th’ earth?
HORATIO: E’en so.
HAMLET: And smelt so? Pah! (puts down the skull) (5.1.181–184)
Here, Hamlet asks—rhetorically, as he already knows the answer—whether someone as important as Alexander the Great also succumbed to the decay of death and now looks as Yorick’s skull does. Horatio’s reply echoes what Hamlet knows: No matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished in life, you will one day die, and your body will rot away. Hamlet even emphasizes how disagreeable the decay is by complaining about the smell of Yorick’s skull.
To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? (5.3.178–179)
Earlier in the play Hamlet exclaimed, “What a piece of work is a man! . . . And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2.295–297) Here, Yorick’s skull makes Hamlet contemplate not only that we are dust but that the dust of even someone as noteworthy as Alexander the Great might end up doing something as lowly as plugging up a beer barrel.