Although William Shakespeare lived and wrote in the 1500s and 1600s, his work endures centuries later, as we still quote from his plays today. In fact, many of his sayings and phrases have become so commonplace in modern English that we altogether forget they originated with the playwright so long ago. Let’s delve into one of these oft-quoted lines, Alas, poor Yorick, which appears in one of Shakespeare’s most well-known passages from arguably his most popular play, Hamlet.
What Does Alas Poor Yorick Mean?
When used alone, the phrase Alas, poor Yorick has come to serve as a commentary on the fleeting nature of life. Perhaps you may hear it said at a funeral, when a person, thinking of their lost loved one, remarks on the brevity and fragility of the human condition. You may also see or hear it used in other instances in which a speaker or writer is musing about or meditating on death and the unavoidable temporariness of our time on this earth. After all, while we can hopefully delay death as long as possible, there’s simply no way to keep it at bay forever. Death happens to us all.
The Literary Origins of the Phrase
As mentioned above, the line comes from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a tragedy that tells the story of Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father, the late King of Denmark, in order to marry Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and become king himself.
Hamlet speaks the line in Scene 1 of Act 5 of the play:
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; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? 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.
Oftentimes, the full line is quoted as: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.” But as you can see here, that is incorrect, as Hamlet actually says, “I knew him, Horatio.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted friend. In the scene, Hamlet speaks directly to Horatio and possibly directly to Yorick, or perhaps more in soliloquy, meaning he simply speaks his thoughts aloud without particular regard to who may hear them.
At the point this speech is made in the play, Hamlet and Horatio are walking together in a cemetery where gravediggers are digging the grave of Hamlet’s lover, Ophelia, who has committed suicide. Perhaps surprisingly, much of this part of the play serves as comic relief, as the gravediggers are joking about the skulls they’ve uncovered in their task and even engaging in witty banter about Ophelia and her choice to take her own life. Indeed, the gravediggers are thought of as “Shakespearean fools,” aka clownish characters that appear in many of the playwright’s works.
Hamlet and Horatio stop to talk with the gravediggers when one digger points to a particular skull, sharing that it has been in the ground for 23 years. Hamlet asks who the skull belonged to, and the gravedigger shares that it is the skull of the late king’s royal court jester, Yorick, whom Hamlet played with lovingly when he was a child. It is these memories of their relationship in his youth that spawns the famous speech. Perhaps one of the most iconic images associated with Shakespeare is also of this scene: of the princely dressed Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull and gazing at it pensively in reflection. (Interestingly, many paintings, especially portraits, made around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet featured people holding and looking at skulls. The theme of reflecting on the transience of life in artwork is referred to as Memento mori, which translates to “remember you shall/must die.”)
As you can see in the excerpt, Hamlet thinks back on the good times he shared with Yorick: on the piggyback rides, kisses, laughter, and fun they had together, at a time when Hamlet’s father was also alive and his days were more joyful than they are at the current point in the play. The final lines of this speech sum up Hamlet’s meditation on death and our fate as humans in general, when he comments that ladies may paint their faces to look beautiful but will ultimately, like everyone at the end of their lives, look as Yorick does in Hamlet’s hands.
It’s important to note that Hamlet ruminates on death throughout the play, and not just at this point. His father has died, and he’s considering avenging that death, an act that could cause him to meet his own fate. But he really, no pun intended, digs into this contemplation here. It is a complex speech, and one not only often quoted but also often analyzed and discussed in great detail in literary circles. Other intense, dramatic scenes in plays and literature have been said to be “alas, poor Yorick moments.”
Other Shakespearean Sayings
William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language is undeniable. We readily quote many lines from his plays. What’s more, many idioms and proverbs used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare, although you may not be aware that they do. Here are a few other popular quotes and sayings to his credit:
- Et tu, Brute?
- Brevity is the soul of wit
- To be or not to be/To be or not to be, that is the question
- The lady doth protest too much
- A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
- Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
- Frailty, thy name is woman
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
- Kill with kindness
- Much ado about nothing
- Wild-goose chase
- Green-eyed monster
- Apple of my eye
- Break the ice
- Pure as the driven snow
- It’s (all) Greek to me
- Love is blind
- All the world’s a stage
- Heart of gold
- All that glitters is not gold
- Too much of a good thing
- All’s well that ends well
- End all be all
- Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve
For the figurative meanings of the idioms shared here, consult an idioms dictionary.
Alas, poor Yorick is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that alludes to the circle of life: that death is inevitable and unavoidable, and that to be human is to have only a fleeting amount of time on the planet. This is our fate. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, speaks the phrase in one of Shakespeare’s most famous and iconic scenes, scene I, act V of the play. Someone may say or write this phrase when they are reflecting, as Hamlet was, on the temporary nature of human existence.