Of Death and Jest:  The Lingering Images of Life's End
Written by Elizabeth Brunner, graduate student in English at California Polytechnic, for Professor Steven Marx's English 431 Shakespeare course.  Dated 1997. Posted online March 30, 1999. 

My mother died soon after my seventh Easter.  Misguided relatives buried her in a tailored pink dress, and then sent my sister and I to the funeral in tiny reproductions of that same dress.  We had posed in these matching outfits for a holiday photo just weeks before, with my mother propped up in a hospital bed, wearing a wig to cover the ravages of chemotherapy, and with chocolate bunnies cradled in our arms.  For me, death will always be associated with pale pink dresses, a color made horrid but soon faded to nothing in a San Jose cemetery.  I remain fascinated by this bizarre and tragic scene from my childhood, by this symbolic joining through shared pinkness of still living daughters with a dead mother.  Was the color of springtime intended to sustain us against the blackness of death?  Were we meant to feel our mother's continued presence through the similarity of clothing?  Or did the adults dress us for performance, to draw sympathy from onlookers at the funeral? 
With the distance of twenty-four years, the cruel association between the survivors and the deceased strikes me as darkly humorous.  The extremes of grief push us to the extremes of reaction. Laughter can shriek with the same agony as tears.  Shakespeare's Hamlet wallowed in death -- facing his father's ghost, contemplating suicide, planning deadly revenge, and playing in a graveyard.  The clowning grave-digger retrieves the long-buried skull of Yorick, "the King's jester" (V.i.156).  In Zeffirelli's film, Hamlet at first appears oddly delighted to inspect the skull.  He places the bony remnant on a grassy mound, touches the cold cheekbone fondly, and then recoils in horror.  In an intimate close-up, actor Mel Gibson leans toward the skull while remembering Yorick as "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy" (V.i.159-60).  The contrast between the memories of "merriment" and the realities of disintegrating bodies traps both the audience and Hamlet somewhere between amusement and regret.  Shakespeare plays on the appearance of skullbones, the exposed jaw pulled back as grin or grimace. 
Theater scholar Marvin Rosenberg describes "Hamlet's growing recognition of what happens when the quintessence of dust that is man" becomes graveyard rubbish; through the "dance macabre, the memento mori," Hamlet loses his fear of death (837).  Toying with bones demystifies the great unknown and trivializes questions of eternity. The skull of Yorick provides a simpler focus for inquiry than the fate of jolly Yorick's soul, just as my mother's burial attire distracts me from the painful question of why death stole her so soon.  Yorick's skull represents definitive knowledge: bodies rot after death.  Religious explanations cannot compete with evidence from the graveyard. 
Guaranteed mortality and decay, shall we amuse ourselves in the limited days of this life or agonize over some possible next phase in our life cycle?  Eighteenth-century novelist Laurence Sterne chose to celebrate, and he adopted Yorick as his fictional counterpart.  In the nine volume Tristram Shandy, Sterne introduces Parson Yorick as a likely descendent from Shakespeare's Danish jester and as a cleric who considers serious "gravity" to be "an errant scoundrel" (Sterne I.xi., p. 23).  Sterne's Yorick dies early in volume one, with three words borrowed from Shakespeare serving as his epitaph: "Alas, Poor Yorick!" (The same words would later replay in Sterne's own obituary in London newspapers.)  But Sterne pushes the memorial further, playing with the conventions of book publishing just as Shakespeare played with the skull as a stage prop.  At his own expense, Sterne inserted a solid black page into his novel and used this graphic shocker to startle the reader more than words could. 
Yet we also laugh with awkwardness, because book pages are not supposed to be shrouded in grief and dead jester skulls should not be lifted from burial ground and little girls must not wear pink to mourn their mothers.  This fetishizing of objects -- pink dress, white bone, black paper --  makes death tangible and tactile.  We grasp at these symbols because the horror of what we lost defies conception. 

Works Cited 

Rosenberg, Marvin.  The Masks of Hamlet.  Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992. 

Sterne, Laurence.  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.  Ed. Ian Campbell Ross. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983. 


Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner