Received a snack in the mail today–Mom sent me a book that first belonged to her mother’s mother, my great-grandmama Grace Lee. Poets of the South was published in 1903, and Grace read it in college, as evinced by her signature on the second page:

Grace Lee
#12 Memorial Hall
M.B.S. [Mary Baldwin School]
Staunton, Va.

I said, “Mommy, this book looks brand new! It doesn’t look like it’s ever been opened.”
She said, “Well, it probably wasn’t!”
I’ll open it this weekend and read it all the way through. 

Hamlet: Skulls are good to think with

When David Tennant played Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2008, there was a brief kerfuffle over the revelation that he’d been using a real skull in the Yorick scene, that of a Polish pianist named Andre Tchaikovsky who bequeathed his skull to the RSC in 1982. Other actors, like Mark Rylance, had rehearsed with the skull before, but Tennant was the first to use a real live skull — or a real dead one — before a paying public. Once the news broke, the real skull was replaced with a fake one when the show transferred to London, although the director, Gregory Doran, muddied the question by later revealing that he never made the switch. He was just trying to hush the chatter. In the Guardian, Jonathan Bate called the incident a “silly sideshow to a great theatrical event.” Given the anecdote’s tenacious grip on our attentions, this bit of theatrical chatter is more than just a sideshow. It’s the main event.

The first thing to be said about the incident is that there’s a long history of actors using real skulls in Hamlet or, more to the point, a long history of theatrical anecdotes about actors claiming to use real skulls in performance — even when they aren’t. As early as 1755, the theater scribbler Paul Hiffernan complained about the regular use of “real Skulls and bones in the Gravedigging Scene of Hamlet, to which a wooden Substitution might be easily made.” The second thing to be said is that such stories are always about Hamlet, which is probably no surprise. No one ever bequeaths a skull so that it might be used in The Revengers Tragedy. It is always Hamlet that makesus lose our heads.

This is due to the fact that the pose of Hamlet, skull in hand, had become as early as 1606 a talisman for theatrical eschatology. In all the iconic poses Hamlet stares into the “eyes” of the skull, searching for signs of life. And yet there’s no one there. Yorick no more has eyes in the front of his head than he does in the back of them. Hamlet might as well stare at the bottom, back, or top of the skull, or — what’s the same — at the theatre’s exit signs. Who is Hamlet looking at, then? Himself? Is the skull a mirror or a lens? Perhaps the preposition is wrong here. Who is Hamlet looking for? He is looking for us. Hamlet stares at the skull and we stare after him — into the desert of the real in which the only oasis is artifice.

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