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Yorick - a Jester's Tale

The idea of writing a ‘biography’ of a character from Shakespeare had been with me for some years. I’ve been a Shakespeare devotee for most of my adult life (I once directed a terrible production of Twelfth Night; at least it taught me a valuable lesson - to stick with what you’re best at!). I’m not even sure why I thought of Yorick, but the more I mused on the ‘whoreson mad rogue’ whose skull we see in Hamlet when the prince banters with the gravedigger, the more he intrigued me. And after all, other writers have taken Shakespearean characters and created their own stories, or back-stories: Lisa Klein with Ophelia, say, or Elaine Feinstein with Lear’s Daughters, not forgetting the most famous of all, Tom Stoppard’s classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Artist impression of a scene from the play
Artist impression of a scene from the play

And so, I re-read Hamlet and began looking into Shakespeare’s sources; he was a great borrower and recycler of tales and legends. Among them is the old Norse folk-tale of Amleth, from the medieval Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. It tells of two brothers, Horwendil and Fengo, the latter of whom murders his brother and marries the widow: the basis of the plot of Hamlet. I came across other Scandinavian myths which I was keen to weave in, like the sea-monster the draugen, or the nightmare figure of the mareridt.

And yet, Yorick himself seems to be entirely a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. Some have suggested that he had in mind the great Elizabethan comic actor, improvisor and loveable rogue Dick Tarlton, who had died around a dozen years before Hamlet was written (apparently in the house of a notorious prostitute). The name might derive from the old Norse version of George: Jørg, the ‘g’ at the end, in Norse languages, being pronounced as a ‘y’. Or it could simply stem from the common name ‘Erik’. I could find no scholarly works about Yorick, though a painting was a big influence: The Young Lord Hamlet by Philip Calderon (1868) which shows the boy prince riding Yorick like a horse.

The Young Lord Hamlet -1868 - Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Public Domain
The Young Lord Hamlet -1868 - Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Public Domain

Other fanciful images show him in a parti-coloured costume with a jester’s cap and bells, which I rejected: that was an English custom, not known in medieval Denmark. But it seemed to me that enough elements were there to take the idea and run with it: my own version of Yorick’s life. For in the end, we know nothing of him other than what the gravedigger tells Prince Hamlet when he digs up the skull. He was the King’s jester, who has ‘lain in the earth three and twenty years’. He was a ‘whoreson mad fellow’ who once ‘poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head’. This prompts Hamlet, holding the skull, to speak the famous lines:

‘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… Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where are 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!’

That was all I needed, I believed, to begin to envisage the character and to locate him in the approximate time and setting: twelfth-century Denmark, in the castle of the semi-legendary King Rorik. Of course, as always Shakespeare takes liberties – shamelessly - with facts as he does with time and place (like the clock in Julius Caesar). But I resolved from the start that I should keep Yorick’s story within the confines of the play of Hamlet. For example, if he had died twenty-three years earlier, and since Hamlet is often assumed to be around thirty, then the prince was only a boy of seven when Yorick died. He was a jester, so I looked at the role of medieval jesters and the unique license they had to mock their masters. I imagined great feasts in the castle’s High Hall, where Yorick could ‘set the table on a roar’ with his songs and his clowning. And importantly, he had clearly been the young prince’s playfellow, bearing him on his back; many fathers will have had that experience.

As for his being a ‘mad rogue’: it seemed logical to me to make him an outrageous, potty-mouthed, hard-drinking rake who lives by his wits, stealing a flagon here and there and bedding every maiden he can. Along the way I had to introduce Hamlet’s parents, the young Princess who would become Gertrude and her husband the older Hamlet, and to deal with her infidelity with his brother (might Yorick have known about it?). While for other elements of the story it was a delight to introduce ghosts and a witch, along with a boring tutor who becomes the King’s councillor Polonius, and a priest who tries in vain to get Yorick to repent of his sins. To humour him, our narrator Yorick in secret writes his life-story, which the priest thinks is a repentance tract. It tells of his rise and fall, and is in one sense a tale of power: for a man of humble birth, a very slippery commodity indeed.

I can only hope that I’ve done some justice to someone who remains, to my mind, the greatest off-stage character William Shakespeare created. It was a joy to write Yorick; I almost feel as if I knew him.

An author for over thirty years, John has written plays for radio and theatre, television scripts for the BBC and numerous historical novels including several for children. Born in Lancashire, he now lives in Devon.

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