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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: January ::
Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0027  Wednesday, 14 January 2009

[1]  From:   Larry Weiss <
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      Date:   Thursday, 08 Jan 2009 12:29:26 -0500
      Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0015 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

[2]  From:   Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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      Date:   Thursday, 8 Jan 2009 15:07:50 -0500
      Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0007 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

[3]  From:   Scot Zarela <
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      Date:   Monday, 12 Jan 2009 14:32:15 -0500
      Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0015 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

[4]  From:   David Evett <
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      Date:   Tuesday, 13 Jan 2009 20:02:17 -0500
      Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0007 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:      Larry Weiss <
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Date:      Thursday, 08 Jan 2009 12:29:26 -0500
Subject: 20.0015 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'
Comment:   Re: SHK 20.0015 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

 >prop documents that actors purport to read from onstage are usually
 >textless fakes, created to fulfill only the requirements of what they
 >should look like to the audience. Thus, instead of reading anything at
 >all those actors are usually speaking memorized lines. Many an actor
 >has looked at the document he is "reading" on a public stage and found
 >text hilariously different, put there for private entertainment.

I would wager a fair amount that the casualty list Henry reads after the 
battle of Agincourt is almost always in the paper.  Why bother to 
memorize that if one can actually read it?

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:      Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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Date:      Thursday, 8 Jan 2009 15:07:50 -0500
Subject: 20.0007 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'
Comment:   Re: SHK 20.0007 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

Brian Willis asks whether a real skull would have been used on the 
Elizabethan stage in performances of Hamlet. The question is a good one 
and goes to the whole question of stage realism in the Elizabethan theater.

Andy Gurr has some material on this in The Shakespearean Stage and 
elsewhere, although I don't recall any specific claims that the skull in 
Hamlet or in The Revenger's Tragedy were real. Blood is a different 
matter. Gurr suggests that real blood may have been used in some cases 
(sheep or calves' blood) although he also notes the probable use of 
bladders or sponges of vinegar on the stage as well.

The question of how this would have affected an audience is also 
interesting. Given the generally greater bodily familiarity of 
Elizabethans with dead bodies of all sorts (human and other animals), I 
imagine that the use of a real human skull on stage (if it ever 
occurred) would have provoked less unease than it might among 21st 
century western audiences.

That's not to say that it wouldn't disturb at all, only that our (and 
here I mean my) general distance from the physicality of death and decay 
makes the handling of actual human remains a more provocative act today 
than it might have been earlier. One has only to consider the fact that 
the RSC needed clearance from the Human Tissue Authority to use the 
skull to see my point; requiring that an application be made to a 
central authority in order to handle human remains is a modern one and 
shows just how distant most of us are from the physicality of death.

What I find most interesting about the skull in Hamlet is the way that 
it becomes in Hamlet's imagination, even if only fleetingly, no longer 
simply the bearer of the conventional (and cliched) memento mori meaning 
or an object for moralizing about death's overthrow of all hierarchical 
distinction, but a reminder of a real human absence/presence: "He hath 
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now how abhorred my 
imagination is!" We're no longer (at least for the moment...but it's 
only a moment) in an abstract and universal graveyard filled with the 
remains of lawyers upon which Hamlet can conventionally moralize but 
face to face with a beloved, and now absent, person whose physical 
traces simply refuse to quietly disappear. Somehow it seems significant 
to me that it is only upon making direct physical contact with the skull 
that Hamlet can now see it as a rem(a)inder of a human individual and 
not merely a conventional human type.

Interestingly, a (perhaps apocryphal) story about why Mark Rylance never 
used the Tchaikowsky skull suggests that this may still be true today. 
According to RSC curator David Howells: "In 1989 Mark Rylance rehearsed 
with it for quite a while, but he couldn't get past the fact it wasn't 
Yorick's, it was Tchaikowsky's." 
(http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/43422/theatre-news/holocaust-survivors-skull-used-by-rsc-in-hamlet.html)

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:      Scot Zarela <
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Date:      Monday, 12 Jan 2009 14:32:15 -0500
Subject: 20.0015 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'
Comment:   Re: SHK 20.0015 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

This discussion reminds me of the legendary post-mortem migrations of 
the skull of Del Close.  For those who don't know the story, and those 
who do and would like to re-visit it, here's a link: 
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/09/061009ta_talk_friend.  I 
don't know the truth of any of this, but it's a good story.

- Scot.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:      David Evett <
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Date:      Tuesday, 13 Jan 2009 20:02:17 -0500
Subject: 20.0007 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'
Comment:   Re: SHK 20.0007 Real Skull Used for RSC's 'Hamlet'

Bones from earlier burials routinely surfaced in European graveyards 
during the digging of new graves and were deposited, presumably without 
much ceremony, in charnel houses--essentially, storage sheds  for the 
displaced skulls and tibias, built against the wall of the church or the 
back wall of the burial ground. The ubiquity of human skulls on desks 
and prie-dieux in paintings, drawings, and prints implies that lots of 
devout people had them lying around the house, and that no particular 
anxieties attached to them. The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body 
produced some naive questions about how the  disjecta membra of a 
dispersed skeleton - the footbone disconnected from the legbone - would 
find each other at the Last Trump (sometimes  in connection with relics, 
given that a finger of St. So-and-So might be in Toledo, and a hand in 
St. Petersburg), but the general view was that if God wanted whole 
skeletons and could manage to recuperate the much more totally mortified 
muscles and viscera, He would arrange to get them.

Ossiferacely,
David Evett

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