Alas, Poor Yorick!

Origin

This phrase occurs in Hamlet, a popular play by William Shakespeare. Hamlet says this phrase when he is with Horatio, speaking to the gravedigger. He looks around the dead bodies and finds a skull of Yorick, the royal jester. Considering his skull, he speaks as if Yorick is alive before him, uttering these words in Act-V, Scene-I, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow/ of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” This phrase tells us that Hamlet is contemplating temporary nature of life after looking at the skull of Yorick. It also shows that though Hamlet seems to have gone mad, actually he is speaking highly meaningful sentences with Yorick.

Meaning

Hamlet makes this speech in the graveyard when he holds up the skull of Yorick. It is a best known and one of the complex speeches in dramatic works, in which Hamlet considers human fate by comparing the skull of Yorick with other living human beings. It is a reflection of Hamlet’s mature and new outlook on human life and death. Thus, this phrase refers to the realization of human beings regarding inevitability of fate and death that death is a natural phenomenon that never ceases.

Usage

This phrase can be used on several occasions. People quote this phrase on funerary occasions of their loved ones to tell the importance of the death phenomenon. Similarly, parents can guide their children and teach them the importance of time during their lives by presenting examples of their closed ones whom they have lost, and that how eventually death will approach them. Religious figures can also use this to pay tribute to dead ones at funeral services.

Literary Source

Hamlet uses this phrase in Act-V, Scene-I of the play, when he speaks to Horatio about Yorick and his childhood memories. He says:

HAMLET:

“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;

…Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.”

(Act-V, Scene-I, Lines 160-172)

Hamlet tells Horatio that the jester told wonderful jokes and had a great imagination. This scene gives an opportunity to the audience to look into the past life of Hamlet how happy he was with his father and enjoyed jester’s company when was not as complex as it is now. He also talks to his skull as if he is alive and asks him where his jokes, songs and laughter have gone now.

Literary Analysis

This phrase occurs in the famous gravedigger scene where Hamlet is found engaged in conversation with the skull of the royal jester, Yorick. Within the play, this is considered a comic relief after charged atmosphere because, and then the gravedigger also starts talking to Hamlet. Looking at the skull of Yorick, brings back his touching memories to Hamlet that seems horrendous, making Hamlet feels sad and sick. Those playful and loving images also remind him the joyous days of their childhood. In fact, Shakespeare has strongly addressed the theme of morality in these lines. The gravediggers were joking about Ophelia’s grave. As they dig it, they discuss about death of royalty. The speech of Hamlet, on the other hand, affirms one’s feeling that nothing can stop death, and it is a great equalizer.

Literary Devices

  • Caesura: Initial caesura or pause occurs with the exclamation mark, as there is a double stress after the exclamation has been placed.
  • Tone: The phrase expresses melancholic tone.

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