Alas, Poor Yorick!

Origin of Alas, Poor Yorick!

This phrase occurs in Hamlet, a popular play by William Shakespeare. The main character Hamlet says this phrase when he is with Horatio, speaking to the gravedigger. He looks around the dead bodies and finds the skull of Yorick, the royal jester. Considering the skull, Hamlet 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 the temporary nature of life, as he looks at Yorick’s skull. It also shows that, though Hamlet seems to have gone mad, actually he is speaking highly meaningful sentences with Yorick.

Meaning of Alas, Poor Yorick!

Hamlet makes this speech in the graveyard when he holds up the skull of Yorick. It is a best known and one of the more complex speeches in dramatic works. Here, 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 the inevitability of fate and death, and that death is a natural phenomenon that never ceases.

Usage of Alas, Poor Yorick!

This phrase can be used on several occasions. People quote this phrase at funerals 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 loved ones whom they have lost, and how eventually death will approach them. Religious figures can also use this to pay tribute to dead ones at funeral services.

Literary Source of Alas, Poor Yorick!

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

“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.”

(Hamlet, 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 how he enjoyed the jester’s company when life was not as complex as it is now. He also talks to the skull as if Yorick is alive and asks him, where his jokes, songs, and laughter have gone now.

Literary Analysis of Alas, Poor Yorick!

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, and then the gravedigger also starts talking to Hamlet. Looking at the skull of Yorick brings back touching memories to Hamlet, which seem horrendous, making Hamlet feel sad and sick.

Those playful and loving images also remind him of the joyous days of their childhood. In fact, Shakespeare has strongly addressed the theme of mortality in these lines. The gravediggers were joking about Ophelia’s grave. As they dig it, they discuss the 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.