This is such a genius way to express disgust. It’s not a word that exists. It is not a word like “ewww” – which we recognize as disgust. It’s got an exhalation built into the word. It’s propulsive. That P sends it away and the ah dissipates it.
Shakespeare is genius for so many big things – big ideas, big metaphors, big images, big characters – but a sound like “pah!” is just as much genius as those bigger things.
Is it the skull that smells? Really? I feel like, if it’s a skull, most of the smelly stuff would have long ago decayed and disappeared, consumed by worms or maggots or any of the matter-devouring organisms that clean a corpse of flesh. Might it simply smell of dirt?
On the other hand, this skull has been dug up in a grave that included multiple skulls, many bones – there may be bodies buried there that are fresher in their decay.
Or perhaps there is a smell to old bones that I have no sense of due to most skeletons I have seen being cleared up for medical use or museum display.
It’s a perhaps morbid curiosity – but what exactly is Hamlet smelling? The smell of death? The smell of another’s death? Decay? Vegetable matter? Rotten tendons? What could still smell after 23 years in the earth?
Alexander’s skull probably did look like that. Which – now I’m wondering – do we have Alexander’s skull somewhere? In our preservationist world, we sometimes do have ways to get a hold of such things.
Where was Alexander buried? Was he buried? He died in Iran, I think – is there a museum in Iran with his remains? This is an answerable question, I’m sure. But I’m going to pretend there’s no internet and hang on to the wondering for a while.
How was it that Alexander’s reputation lasted so long? From his time to Shakespeare’s to ours?
And of course the answer is stories.
I wondered – because there isn’t an Odyssey or Iliad or Gilgamesh sort of epic – but there are many. He was the subject of many a romance and because he ranged round his corner of the globe quite widely – people told stories about him quite wildly and widely.
Myself, I always see Alexander as Sean Connery. This might be seen as peculiar if you haven’t seen Terry Gilliam’s film, Time Bandits, in which Sean Connery portrays a kind generous jolly sort of Alexander who is the only good father figure the child has known.
Horatio is one of those roles I have always imagined could be so easily played by a woman. I wasn’t sure why, really – but it occurs to me now that Horatio is playing a role in the play that is usually reserved for women in a story. He doesn’t have much identity of his own, he primarily serves Hamlet’s needs for companionship, for a sounding board, for support. This is what women do in so many stories – or at least the ones where they’re not saying. “No, you CAN’T go to war, that party, that mission, that adventure, it’s too dangerous!” But the ones that aren’t that…they’re like Horatio. Ah, I love to realize how much I have internalized the Patriarchy.
Suddenly, the idea of MAKING someone laugh feels quite aggressive – and in this case, cruel. Though, I do believe making someone laugh – or, rather, eliciting a laugh from someone, is one of the most pleasurable acts, on both sides of the equation. And a really good comedian probably could make someone laugh at their own mortality in this way.
But that’s not what Hamlet’s on about here. He’s more concerned with inflicting punishment on Ophelia, with confronting her with something upsetting and disturbing. It has a bit of the quality of The Joker in Batman, whose jokes are not funny – but are, in fact, thrust upon victims. The idea of MAKING someone laugh, at the moment, evokes a sense of tying them up and poking them until they surrender.
I wonder about language differences here. In Italian, fare ridere is also to make laugh. But it might carry more of the sense of crafting than compelling, I think.
I’d love to know how other languages construct making someone laugh.
It’s interesting how we seem to know that Hamlet is referring to Ophelia here and not, say, his mother. Is Ophelia still his lady in his mind? He broke up with her many scenes ago.
And the answer is, of course, forthcoming.
And, of course, to this favor she is already well on her way.
It’s pretty dark, there, Hamlet. Here you are trying to make a joke about your girlfriend’s mortality and it is not funny because she is already dead.
Also the prejudice against make-up is infuriating. And I am no great fan of the stuff. I like it for performance and that’s about it. But a woman who chooses to wear make-up probably has a much more heightened awareness of her own mortality than any man. In the attempt at “correcting” for “flaws” a woman who “paints” her face is in the most intimate contact with her own march toward the grave. She can mark, literally mark, each new line, each crack, each sign of age.
Until I looked up the etymology of chap, I thought this was pretty simple – just chaps, as in cheeks or jaw, as the face, fallen. Like – sad – like crestfallen. But funny because a skull has no chaps, no cheeks and the jaw won’t necessarily be attached.
But it turns out “chap” as a person was already in use in Shakespeare’s time – so he could also be a chap, fallen. Or the sense of cracking open, in fissures, as in chapped lips, a skull might also have a sense of separation – a cracking open between skull and jaw or wear and tear from getting dug up by a gravemaker every so often. Or maybe that’s all a reach and it’s just the jaw.
I kind of wish I’d taken that philosophy class in college. I feel like there’s a philosopher who talks about a doubling of self. Or maybe that’s a psychologist? And I did take that psychology class – but I can’t think of who that theorist might have been.
In any case – there is an interesting doubling of Yorick’s self here. The one who is dead, whose skull seems to be grinning due to the teeth and the one who would have made fun of such a morbid grin. There are two Yoricks in Hamlet’s mind.
It also occurred to me that there might be another interpretation available. It’s a stretch – so I don’t think it’s right but given that there is no fool or jester in this play, it would seem that after Yorick’s death, they didn’t replace him. So there is no official fool in the Danish Court.
The only fool left is the one Hamlet internalized.
In the right context, I can be this person. I’m not sure what the right context is but I do know how to crack up a table of people sometimes. I know when I can’t do it – it’s when there are comedians at the table or possibly even just other performers. It’s like – if there is a competition for the joke or the story or the cutting remark – I will lose that competition. I need space in the conversation to work my magic in this way. If the pace is quickfire, I will likely just remain quiet and any roaring the table does will be in response to the faster moving merriment. But when the rhythm is right, I can land joke after joke and feel like a party star.