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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: November ::
Source of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2003  Tuesday, 23 November 2004

[1]     From:   David Basch <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Nov 2004 14:45:36 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1995 Source of Hamlet

[2]     From:   Bruce Richman <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Nov 2004 17:19:59 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1995 Source of Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Monday, 22 Nov 2004 14:45:36 -0500
Subject: 15.1995 Source of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1995 Source of Hamlet

Peter Bridgman asks about the connection between the skull of Yorick in
Hamlet and Hillel's sighting of a skull floating on water in the Talmud
as appeared in my article, "The Bible on Stage." I mentioned the
connection in the article in that both events concern Heaven's principle
of measure for measure.

In the Talmud, it says:

     (2.7.)  Moreover, he [Hillel] saw a skull floating on the surface
      of the water: he said to it, Because thou drownedst others, they
      have drowned thee, and at the last they that drowned thee shall
      themselves be drowned.

Hamlet had mused that perhaps this skull-which he did not know at the
time was Yorick-was that of a politician who could "circumvent G-d" but
was now being "over reached," overruled, by the lowly grave digger-"how
the knave jowls it to the ground."

The politician thus gets his comeuppance by himself being
unceremoniously thrust to the ground, overruled, by an inferior, the
lowly gravedigger, the same way the politician, an arrogant inferior to
God, overruled the word of God.

The article was originally written for a Jewish readership that would
have been familiar with this popularly known Talmudic story about Hillel
and to whom the parallel in my Hamlet article would have been clear. But
when I reach out beyond this group, I see that I must not presume a
reader's facility with this. Hence, I need to be far more explicit about
my points than I have been.

I thank Peter Bridgman for asking and I hope others will ask about other
points that they find obscure.

David Basch

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Richman <
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 >
Date:           Monday, 22 Nov 2004 17:19:59 -0600
Subject: 15.1995 Source of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1995 Source of Hamlet

The reference to a skull floating on the water appears in Midrash 7 of
the Ethics of the Fathers. It is a commentary on the lines, "All Israel
has a share in the World to Come, as it is said: 'And your people are
all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; they are a branch of
My planting, My handiwork, in which I take pride.'" Midrash, or
explanatory commentary, #7 on this passage reads, "He also saw a skull
floating on the water; he said to it: 'Because you drowned others, they
drowned you; and those who drowned you will be drowned eventually.'" The
Lubavitcher Rebbe further comments on the Mishnah, particularly the
phrase, "He also saw a skull floating on the water.": "Our rabbis
explain that this refers to the skull of Pharaoh, who was drowned in
punishment for having Jewish boys drowned in the Nile. When (Rabbi)
Hillel (author of an earlier Midrash upon which this is expanding) saw
Pharaoh's skull, he realized that this was an extraordinary phenomenon,
and contemplated the matter, gaining this insight. Why did God cause
this to happen? The fact that Hillel learned a lesson from the skull and
shared it with others enabled the skull to come to eternal rest after
thousands of years of drifting on waters. This is the intent of the
phrase, 'he said to it', which can be translated, 'for it.' Hillel made
his statement for the skull's benefit. Once the skull had communicated
its lesson, it had fulfilled its purpose and could rest."

If you reach, of course you can find metaphoric parallels ("Because you
drowned others, they drowned you"; "Hoist with his own petar"), but, as
noted, the only real thing shared is a skull. And, of course, the chance
that Shakespeare ever saw, could have read, or had the training to
interpret Talmud is absolutely zero.

Bruce Richman

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