Shakespeare’s Illumination Of The Skull

Yesterday morning, my class and I went to an exhibit at the British Library known as Shakespeare In Ten Acts. There were many interesting artifacts contained in the exhibit, such as old scripts and books, but the item that caught my eye the most was a lone skull resting in a glass rectangular case. The skull was a real human skull that was meant to bring attention to the skull that Hamlet is famously pictured as holding in his famous “to be or not to be” speech.

The skull might be a really common image, but the reason why it struck out at me so fiercely during that moment and time is because it is a morbid reminder of what the human body transforms into after death. We always picture the human face as one of the most vibrant aspects about us. It has rose red cheeks that are filled with emotion, bright eyes filled with excitement for life, and compassionate smiles that welcome other humans into its proximity.

The skull is the exact opposite of this. Over the centuries, the skull has been dehumanized and it is seen as a hollow inanimate object. It has gone from being the fearful mascot of a pirate flag to being imprinted on the mask of a little kid who is dressing up as a skeleton for Halloween. It is also considered to be an icon of horror in general. We as humans have become so distant from the skull that we tend to forget that it is the core of our facial structure. If all of the skin on our heads magically disappeared, then those heads would be no different from the skull that I saw at the exhibit.

Shakespeare really drives this point home in his play, Hamlet. He has the character of Hamlet in the presence of this skull. At first glance, one would think that the scene is just of a man holding an object, when in reality, Hamlet and the skull are two sides of the same coin. Hamlet is the side that is full of life (however depressed he may be) and the skull is the side that used to be full of life but is now a bleak hollow object with nothing left to look forward to. The skull serves to show the gravity of what Hamlet faces. If Hamlet abandons this dark path, then his life will continue, but if not, then the appearance of death is all that he has to look forward to. This is why the skull was the key item that held my interest yesterday, because I, along with most of humanity, spend so much time thinking of it as just an item symbolizing death, when in reality, the skull is a fundamental part of the living body.