A Reply to Ms. Gunio and Yorick, Our Yorick
A Reply to Ms. Gunio
This blog is about the many faces of the court jester Yorick in Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1). However, as Ms. Gunio’s opening question in her adorable piece “Shakespeare’s Word for Love” (Jan. 15, 2011) has become too enthralling to ignore, I figured that Yorick can afford to wait. Although it might be better to react to her question directly, that is, below her blog, I confess I am not as tech-savvy as everybody else, and the time it will take me to learn how to do it will probably take longer than the time it will take me to write this. For the moment, let these initial comments stand as a preface of some sort, and I promise, because they are somewhat unrelated to the specific topic, that they shall be the only “digressions” I will make. Or, the reader can go directly to the article below. Either way is fine.
To dispel the mystery, what was the question of Ms. Gunio? In form, simple; in essence, dangerously profound. She asked: “What is Shakespearean to begin with?” Further, “Given the reality of canonicity and capitalism, what of Shakespeare remains to live on in every ‘Shakespearean form’”? Now then, Ms. Gunio! Surely you cannot mean to ask these sincerely? But such questions, such dangerous, wicked questions! They fling their weight, and our minds are crushed. They sleep, we are at peace, but there you go and disturb them, hoping perhaps that Prof. Ick will silence their anger, will placate their fury, and once more will breathe in the winds of normalcy, of the innocent, preconscious what-has-been-before, combing comfort into our guilty heads, and even more, whispering consolations into our even guiltier minds. But this cannot be. This we must not let her do. For she herself, alongside us, is an inquirer. And even if she were to protect us by her power, none of us would be sharing any delight in the question. We should then have been appeased because we should then have been, like helpless children, provided for. Yet I hope you will believe me when I tell you that appeasement can never equate to satisfaction, is nothing quite like satisfaction, because it wants that element of labor, that happy and congruous mixture of having wanted to earn something combined with having obtained a deserved something. These are our questions, and they require, they demand our own attention. Mind then that here it is better to be a little bit selfish!
Again what is it that we have done? We have asked. What? Nothing, except this: that we have yet to understand the meaning of this subject course. We, thus, have signed a contract with meaning, and meaning possesses its own force, its own energy. We have inquired about the Shakespearean. We have confessed that it still eludes us. And as this cannot be the case, must not be the case, in order to justify the existence of the phrase Transmedial Shakespeare, and perhaps also to render credible the administrative choices of our Department, and in a sideway jab answer also why it offers courses like these, let us square these questions again, and attempt to contain them. I wish then to share your interest, Ms. Gunio. Echoing your questions, and quitting this figurative, metaphorical, and half-serious strain, I ask along with you: what is the Shakespearean and what of Shakespeare remains to live on in every “Shakespeare form”?
In all seriousness, I myself have never understood the term the Shakespearean until I discovered what I think is its secret; that secret has something to do with the duality between the script of the plays and their varying performances. There are three things that we are referring to when we are concerned with what is Shakespearean: either we understand it in a biographical sense, in a formal sense, or in an ideal sense.
The first is easy enough, what I mean by it is simply the people, the events, etc. which are related to the life of William Shakespeare. For example, not having been educated in a prestigious school, or buying your way into gentility are, in a way, Shakespearean.
By “formal” I am referring to the functions of the plays which contribute to its literariness, as for example, the categories of character, theme, plot, setting, and dialogue. If you are thinking of the Russian Formalists, you have caught my drift exactly. For example, the name “Hamlet”, the theme of “maternal abhorrence”, the plot wherein “one character sees the ghost of his father commanding him to revenge his death”, the setting of “a semi-gothic kingdom in Denmark”, and the line “To be or not to be”, are all of them today in a good sense Shakespearean. The key point is that they are so because they constitute the elements of the scripts that we now consider as having been written by William Shakespeare. They are there: literally and explicitly.
There is, however, a primary consideration that complicates this formal sense of the Shakespearean, and that is the fact that these scripts were performed. And the performances, as our lectures have shown, were much unlike the scripts, were in fact very different from the scripts. What appeared on the stage did not necessarily correlate with what appeared on the script: certain characters were added here or there, some scenes were shortened or lengthened, some lines were reduced or extended, some artists acted well or badly, and so on, all depending on innumerable situational externalities. The script was, at best, a guide. That-which-has-been-performed was different from the script, and what made them different was the infusion of human agency, specifically, the human productive talents other than that of the playwright, and these included the director/s, the actors/actresses, the producer/s, and so on. Further, something happened within the course of these performances which will prove to be of monumental significance: they created a feeling of sublimity and, as will be generally acknowledged later on in history, a presence of radiance and luminosity, of superlative brilliance, of divinity, of enchantment, of a certain sense of wholeness and rightness. What this feeling was, I think, is in part intuitive, and cannot be arrested in language, but anyone who has felt it cannot forget what it is like. This “sublime feeling”, for want of a better term, was there in the performances of the plays, even though no one can pinpoint exactly what or where it was in it; in other words, it seemed to be outside the parts of the performance itself. It was ungraspable, invisible, and in a sense, ultra-physical and ultra-sensible, because it affected something higher than just the five senses, it touched on something deep in the perceivers’ consciousness. It is this sublime feeling found in the performance of a play of Shakespeare that I mean by the Shakespearean in an “ideal” sense. Ideal because it is, first and foremost, an idea, and as such, impinges on the consciousness more than anything else. This ideal sense, moreover, is, therefore, based on though not trapped within the script. It is the spiritual outgrowth of the body of the script and is revealed whenever the script is effectively generated into a living, healthy play. It is the soul of genius that animates the tissue of language. It is the transfigurative substance that immortalizes words, phrases, question-marks, periods and exclamation points into the sounding-board of timelessness. Any play which injected its audience with this sublime feeling I am willing to concede is in this way Shakespearean.
These are the only ways I can understand the term Shakespearean; any other I confess is beyond me. But where does the Transmedial Possibility enter? Again, where and what of Shakespeare remains to live on in every “Shakespeare form”? I answer: more than in the biographical and in the formal elements, the ideal element binds the Shakespeare ethos. It is this that I think lives on in every Shakespeare form, and it is through it that transmediality is done or is even given a chance. The first painter, sculptor, dancer, poet, filmmaker, or artist who believed that the sublime feeling got from watching a performed Shakespeare play could be impressed upon an audience in a medium other than the stage is the father or mother of Transmedial Shakespeare. Whoever first argued that the human productive talent or the human agency required to transform a Shakespeare script, through a kind of performance, into a work capable of reflecting the sublime feeling is his or her own non-theatrical art is the intellectual ascendant of Prof. Ick. Thus, the sublime feeling, because of the desire of the non-theatrical arts or mediums to re-present it, tacitly understood of course by their practitioners that they could re-present it, became a universal: the essence of that-which-has-been-performed became, for them, the essence of that-which-must-be-caught/captured. More than because a certain medium referenced a biographical aspect of the Shakespeare or alluded to a formal element of a Shakespeare play, it is whether a medium is able to pounce on and to exhibit the ideal element, the sublime feeling, and how victoriously it did so that it really became Shakespearean and how we can judge “where and what of Shakespeare” exactly remained on to live in it. This also I half-suspect is what has drawn you, Ms. Gunio, in your fond attachment to Desdemona in the numerous paintings of her. When you said of Desdemona that:
Depictions may differ and paintings of her may then be altered generation after generation but still the very essence of the persona behind Desdemona continues to live on as the woman who for love, lived and died. Her heroic yet graceful hands, her bold yet gentle lips, her fearless yet innocent eyes have continually survived in portraits of her, capturing the strength and purity of her heart owing to her doubted and yet untainted love (“Shakespeare’s Word for Love”)
I believe you are thus referring to that constant which is not just biographically or formally Shakespearian, but that which is ideally so. The sublime feeling in this case is developed from appreciating the presence of the “very essence of the persona behind Desdemona”, that is, not Desdemona the character or Desdemona per se, but the ethereal symbolisms, definitions, beauty, love, tragedy and pity all violently mashed up behind her character. The persona is the life-sound and the character only the instrument used to channel it. As such, the persona “continues to live on” even after the death of Desdemona. It lives on, once more, wherever and whenever the sublime feeling evoked by her situation is given a hearing.
The sublime feeling, further and largely out of this, dissolved into a grander schema: it changed into what we, as a class, now identify as the Ideal or the Platonic Shakespeare. I think when we use this phrase we are still referring to the sublime feeling, except that now we look at it from beyond the confines of a theatrical framework, and more with a general scope including all the other arts and mediums. The Ideal or Platonic Shakespeare is that same universal impulse of awe, that universal invitation to wonder which softly forces a surrendering of our will: it compels our ears to listen and naturally goads our sensibilities to experience the familiar yet mystifying voice of not some dead author who lived 400 years ago, but of what was said through him, of what was meant through him, that something which resonates like a melodic earthquake into our very brains and innards, that something which, both painfully and pleasurably, squeezes our souls into tears and explodes our thoughts in hilarity. But multiplication of words or images will get me nowhere nearer what I mean. Suffice to say that this feeling, far from being perceived as exclusively obtainable from a movement of script to stage performance, is now perceived as possible to be re-presented from script to painting performance, from script to dancing performance, from script to cinema, from script to cartoons, or in even more complex convolutions, such as from script to stage performance to comics or from script to stage performance to painting performance, and so on. The Ideal or Platonic Shakespeare is nevertheless the same sublime feeling which all of these mediums aspire and to a certain extent do capture.
This is thus my understanding of the Ideal or Platonic Shakespeare, and its premise is that there is a sublime feeling or essence higher and infinitely above the mediums themselves which with due effort they can only partly and never fully re-present. It is also in this sense that it is transcendent: it transcends each of these mediums, eternally escapes being captured entirely by them, is safe from being grounded or pinned down decisively by anyone of them, and while we do not directly know this, we infer that this must be the case because otherwise how can we account for the omnipresence of the same particular feeling, even if in different amounts or guises, in all of these multiple fields? There must then be one grand source, inexhaustible and pure, which the different mediums, by the very act of re-presentation, however, makes “impure” and only echoes a part of, and that is the world of the Ideal or Platonic Shakespeare. No one medium, this theory asserts, can thus monopolize the sublime feeling. It is beyond the script and even beyond the dramatic performance no matter how much it may be based on these. Once more, it also asserts that although the sublime feeling is open to re-presentation by all mediums, this does not necessarily mean that they are all equally capable in re-presenting it fully or honestly.
In ending this already too long answer, I will only add that while I agree that the idea of the Shakespearean could have been given a much simpler explanation, as for example the materialist-economic theory that Shakespeare is everywhere only because Bardbiz branding helps sell commodities, because any product emblazoned with anything annexable to Shakespeare more often than not becomes sophisticated and credible, or the elitist-cultural theory which states that the universality of Shakespeare is due to British cultural superiority, because Shakespeare is a cultural icon and legend over and beyond any other literary artist, I do think nevertheless that these other approaches share a weakness. None of these theories seem to account for the apparent willingness of certain people in countries not generally interested with Shakespeare, our country for one, to still devote a part of their careers to capturing the Shakespearean without, at the same time, being paralysed by the all too well known poor reception of Shakespeare here, and without thinking that because England produced the greatest playwright in Literature that no Filipino could be a great playwright in his or her own right. I can attest only for people I know, but in two organizations at least, the UP Lingua Franca and the UP Writers’ Club, this is fortunately still the case. But no one really knows, maybe years later I might be cynical enough to give these other theories a wider berth.
I genuinely thank Ms. Gunio for asking her questions, and I equally thank whoever reacts to the questions that my intellectual position here implicitly raises. Yorick awaits.
Yorick, Our Yorick
DISCLAIMER: None of these photos, clips and pictures are mine. They are the sole property of their owner/s.
Yorick as a minor Shakespearean character is, if not the strangest, then certainly is the most intriguing. Aside from the perplexity of the modal relations unnerving his formal position in the play, that is, his remains are literally caught between the joviality and carelessness of the gravediggers and the pain and remembrance of Hamlet, forcing us to question what our own attitude towards Yorick shall be, there is also the consideration that he enters the play already dead, and aside from the other privileged dead characters, is given no ghost. In a good sense, he is alive in the play only because he is dead. His appearance is as much a disappearance for the simple reason that he becomes a character only because other major characters vouch him to be so and not because he himself proves to us that he is so. He is there in the play, therefore, not positively, but negatively, through a quick brush with the memory of the living since by himself he has no capacity to express his own story, his own identity.
However, there are ways to provide Yorick with meaning. True, he could be conceded, for example, as a minor character, yet nevertheless as a symbol and as a device he is useful. Yorick does not need any ghost, we can argue, because his skull is death itself: it is a symbol of the unavoidable though fearful fact that everybody, either friends or enemies, will die, as much as it is a reminder of the triumph of nature and the pervasive order of things. This could be his value. Another argument can also be listened to: Yorick, again, serves a useful literary device, because his skull, with the burial of Ophelia, foreshadows the gruesome ending of the play. Thus, he is an important land-mark, and his presence contributes in setting the tone without disrupting the mood of the rest of Hamlet Act 5.
But it is not my interest to pursue any of these theoretical viewpoints concerning the specific value of Yorick in the play because frankly speaking, I do not think him enough of a character at all, even a minor one, in this play. He is, as I see it, a situation, and what he gives is a kind of prodding furtherance in our understanding of Hamlet’s mind. More than Yorick, I am interested in Yorick’s skull and how, as originally depicted as an accessory for the musing of Hamlet, it has transformed in meaning by its inclusion in different media. For this essay I will be looking at Yorick’s skull in two categories: in serious portrayals of it in Film, Theater and Art, and in not-so-serious portrayals of the same in Cartoons, Advertisement and Photography.
In Film, two of the best Hamlet adaptations ever made were the 1948 Laurence Olivier version and the 1990 Mel Gibson version. In Theatre, on the other hand, three of the more recent Hamlet adaptations count the Broadhurst Theatre (2009) production with Jude Law in the starring role, the Royal Shakespeare Company (2010) production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart alternately playing Hamlet, and the Court Theatre (2009) production. In Art, unfortunately, the only painting I could find was an undated painting from the website Caledonian Mercury.
I have grouped these three media together because they evoke the general spirit of the graveyard scene: its seriousness, intensity, painfulness, surprise, depth and metaphysical violence. All of these portrayals, especially Sir Olivier’s, replay the multi-layered abstractions pregnant in that moment of Hamlet’s life. Through a close examination of the common denominator of their physical deliveries, of their manner of modeling certain body parts—eyes and hands locked directly into the skull, lips pursed, mouth kept half-open; in essence, tight facial expressions, tight body language—one recognises the act of remembrance, the awe and stupor over the indiscrimination of death, the consciousness of the future corruption, demotion, and ugliness of all humanity, and the pathos of the temporality, the littleness of all our problems. In their hands, Yorick’s skull becomes a mirror, and as such, in gazing at it they see not just death, but a former friend swallowed up by death, and the gaze, no wonder, appears to be at once pitiful, caring, angry and disgusted. The skull thus, reflects the future of Hamlet and the rest of us, and it is characteristic that in these actors’ tight, very tight, reactions we are affected since these kinds of looks are dangerously attractive, these kinds of looks both challenge and inspire because they both struggle and fight.
In Film and Theater depictions, then, the seriousness and intensity of Yorick’s skull dominates. It homogenises as a dramatic accessory to jumpstart Hamlet’s introspection. In the not-so-serious portrayals of it in Cartoons, Advertisement and Photography, the same is no longer the case, and in fact is quite the opposite. Here are some examples of Cartoons featuring Yorick’s skull:
And from Advertisement and Photography:
To begin with, the appearance of Yorick’s skull in Cartoons is obviously for humorous effect. In contrast to the first three media which highlight the finality of life and the ephemeral nature of being, these jokes parody the scene and strip it of its gravitas by pointing out logical though un-raised questions: for one, how can Hamlet really know that it is truly and without question Yorick’s skull that he is holding? What right has he to brandish it as if the rest of his skeletal system won’t mind? These Cartoons likewise do not contain the control expressions mentioned earlier and in conversely, the characters all look away from Yorick’s skull. Its function then becomes an accessory still, but to other ends, namely, that of comedy and of farce. The manga character I found supposedly also features Yorick’s skull. As a foil to the other Cartoons, it comes close to replaying the Hamlet scene seriously and non-comically.
Interestingly the same auxiliary function once more assumes a different sense when considered in line with Advertisements. Here, Yorick’s skull literally becomes an object of apparel, and is subsumed under its association with death, one reason maybe for self-expression or group-expression. In this case, it appears on T-shirts, cards and posters, and unlike the first four media, is represented alone and without Hamlet. The woman holding the skull in the card is supposedly Ophelia; thus triggering certain questions of faithfulness to the text because in the play the two never meet. But more to the point in this medium, Yorick’s skull becomes a kind of emo and gothic symbol which represents darkness and evil in and for itself. Its original character is depleted, that is, any other skull would have done just fine, and by a cheap substitution is made to increase the credibility of an otherwise plain design. Yorick’s skull here is hardly differentiated from the skulls in other logos, say, the skull in the brand of Guns n’ Roses.
Finally, in Photography, Yorick’s skull becomes a point of mediation, an icon of the identifiable past from which the present can take its cue. The woman Hamlet and the Darth Vader Hamlet both re-personalise Yorick’s skull through a dexterous, postmodern twist and infuse it and themselves new identities. They, like in the last two media, deplete its original gravitas and pathos, yet in this case profoundly substitute another in their place. These images repackage pain and suffering into creativity and, again, self-expression. Yorick’s skull has become independent of Hamlet. Yorick’s skull in our time has finally become a character in his own right. It will no longer be relevant whether one is parodying the other here, or to suggest a high-brow/low-brow bifurcation, since given two famous icons colliding with each other, one has as much a right to be considered as the other.
These media reflect Yorick’s skull prominently even if in various fashions: in them it lives, grows, changes and remains. A beautiful irony is it not? A character died—only to be resurrected in everybody else.
Laurence Olivier 1 – “Sample Learning Guide to Hamlet”. Teach With Movies. 13 Jan 2011.
Laurence Olivier 2 – “Fairly Civil”. Tomadan. 13 Jan 2011.
Mel Gibson – “To Be or Not to Be”. Flick Filosopher. 20 Sept 2008. 13 Jan 2011.
Court Theater – “Hamlet at Court Theater”. 20 Nov 2009. 13 Jan 2011.
Haymarket – “Yes, indeedee!”. Are you Shakesperienced?. 13 Jan 2011.
Jude Law – “Hey, Jude!”. Gina’s Blog. 22 Oct 2009. 13 Jan 2011.
URL: < http://www.ginarosa.com/>
Royal Shakespeare Company – “Hamlet Features as a Special Guest”. RAVEN-OUS. 19 Nov 2010. 13
Sepia – McKie, John. “Alas, poor David, we knew him all too well”. Caledonian Mercury. 18 Jan 2010.
13 Jan 2011.
Cartoons and Comics
2-6. “Alas Poor Yorick Cartoons and Comics”. Cartoon Stock. 13 Jan 2011.
Manga – “Alas Poor Yorick”. Minitokyo. 14 June 2008. 13 Jan 2011.
Black – “Yorick”. ImaginEERIEing. 13 Jan 2011.
Postcard – “Shakespeare’s Hamlet Holding Hamlet’s Skull”. Fast-Autos. 13 Jan 2011.
T-Shirt and other Products – “Als Poor Yorick Shirt”. Zazzle. 13 Jan 2011.
Colorful – “Hamlet”. The Great Escape. 24 Dec 2010. 13 Jan 2011.
Darth Vader – “:D”. b3ta challenge: shakespeare. 25 Nov 2010. 13 Jan 2011.
Sexy Hamlet – “Halloween Roundup 2009”. Clothesmonaut. 16 Nov 2009. 13 Jan 2011.
Gian Carlo Velasco
College of Arts and Letters