What is it about the skull?

David and Andre

Recently the Mythographer received a tip about a more-than-usually-interesting letter to NPR’s All Things Considered. It was a response to ATC’s story about Jude Law’s insistence on using a real human skull for the famous “Yorick” soliloquy, in his current Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Hamlet,” for the sake of verisimilitude. As it turned out, Law was far from the first actor to insist on this fragile and uncommonly valuable prop. Law was only following his immediate RSC-Hamlet predecessor, David Tennant, whom last year got to serenade the skull of the one and only Andre Tchaikovsky.

The pianist, who died in 1982, willed his skull to the RSC specifically for this purpose.  His agent thought Tchaikovsky was kidding until he saw the will.  What is it about the human skull that compels fascination? Why does “Yorick”, in contrast to, say, Hamlet’s sword, or crown, or girlfriend, need to be “real”?

Back to that NPR letter. It tells the story of one particular 19th-century Yorick skull, willed to the hallowed halls of New York City’s Player’s Club by one Edwin Booth, the famous tragedian.

Edwin as Hamlet, 1870

Edwin as Hamlet, 1870

Booth was willed the skull from his father, fellow tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, and Booth Sr. was willed the skull from a “notorious horse thief” by the name of Fontaine, with whom Junius had once shared a jail cell.  The two must have bonded. When Fontaine died, he had his head removed and skull preserved, and shipped to the Booth family home in Baltimore, scandalizing Mrs. Booth.  A gory joke?  A way to leave your body, or part of it, to art, rather than science?  An ominous warning from one larger-than-life character to another that no one is, in fact, larger than death?

Ironic, then, that the Booth you’ve heard of is probably not Edwin, nor Junius, but Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes. Junius’s other son also followed in the family business, but that’s not what he’s known for.  He’s known for death, and by taking the life of Lincoln, they both became immortal.

John Wilkes, Edwin, and Junius Booth in Julius Caesar, 1864

John Wilkes, Edwin, and Junius Booth in Julius Caesar, 1864

According to legend, or rather to NPR, after his brother John played his best-known historic role as assassin, Edwin never spoke his name again, but kept a photograph of him on a shelf in his study, next to the skull of Fontaine/Yorick.  Was one a warning to the other?  John Wilkes, like Fontaine, met a swift and bloody end, shot by Union soldiers 12 days after Lincoln’s death.

But unlike Fontaine, John Wilkes lived on, metaphorically speaking.  His infamy was so strong that there were even those who thought he lived on, literally, escaping from the soldiers and dying under a pseudonym in 1903 after a deathbed confession!

Now the skull of Fontaine lives on a marble mantlepiece at Edwin Booth’s Players Club, which describes it thusly:

There is also a curious mark of a crescent moon and a five-pointed star just above the brow, and the remnants of a handwritten quote that to the naked eye appears to have been made by whichever hand inked the moon and star insignia. Most appropriately, the writing appears to be one of the most famous quotes from Hamlet: “The rest is silence.”

It thought, therefore it was?

It thought, therefore it was?

The inscription reminded me of the similarly convoluted story of Rene Descartes’ skull (and bones), as brilliantly recounted in this video by Russell Shorto, author of Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.  Descartes’s skull too, circulated, and was inscribed with an account of its wanderings, and of its former owner’s genius, though not with anything as pithy as “I think therefore I am”.

But as Shorto’s subtitle suggests, it’s not really about the bones.  He vehemently protests accusations of bone fetishism on his Web site.  It’s about what the bones represent–in Descartes’ case, the ongoing battle between scientific evidence and religious faith. Descartes, Fontaine, Tchaikovsky, and fictional Yorick, all had different reasons to assert their life in the face of death. Fontaine’s skull was about defying the law, or maybe about scandalizing his friend’s wife. Tchaikovsky’s skull was about the authenticity of art, and maybe about a posthumous joke on his agent.

There’s another controversial skull and bones soon to be out in prominent public display, the skeleton of “Lucy”, famed early hominid discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970s. This month, despite the concern of many prominent museums and anthropologists who argued that the 40 million year old bones were far, far too fragile for a traveling show, Lucy will be on display at a new venue in Times Square, 19th-century-carnival style.  Her skull & bones might have something to say to Descartes’ remains. But that’s another skull, another story.

Meanwhile, Jude Law’s Hamlet is getting good reviews.




2 Responses to What is it about the skull?

  1. […] embarrassing and primitive.  But as you might be able to tell from MM’s obsessions with skulls, stones, and trees, I’m actually a big fan of investing ordinary objects with religious […]

  2. Sandy says:

    Very interesting article. I thought was fascinating, and never thought for a moment that Mr Shorto was a bone fetishist. By the way, Lucy lived FOUR million years ago, not forty.. Twenty-some years ago the Amer Mus Nat Hist did a very complete assemblage of every significant hominid fossil (at the time) called, simply, “Ancestors”. It included Lucy’s skeleton and the fossilised Laetoli footprints. And you know what? It wasn’t a very big room.

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