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‘I covet your skull’: Death and Desire in Hamlet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2007

Peter Holland
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame, Indiana
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Summary

O skull! O skull! O skull! I hold thee out . . .

Was here the brain that wrought some forty plays . . .

And brought forth endless comments everywhere?’

Belgrave Titmarsh, Shakspere‚s Skull (1889)

You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure? A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum. It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull.

A. Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

I am Hamlet the Dane

Skull-handler, parablist . . .

Seamus Heaney, ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces’ (1975)

In July 1648 John Evelyn, early and influential member of the Royal Society, sat for prolific portraitist Robert Walker.

1st July. I sate for my picture, in which there is a Death’s head, to Mr. Walker, that excellent painter.

The painting was designed to accompany Instructions Oeconomique, a treatise on marriage written for Evelyn’s (very) young wife. He had hoped to have it executed as a miniature ’by Peter Oliver, Hoskins or Johnson‚, but with Oliver dead and the other two unavailable, Evelyn ’could meet with none capable‚. This context of marital intimacy now seems out of keeping with the image, which displays Evelyn with one hand embracing a human skull, and is annotated by a Greek motto (‘Repentance is the beginning of Philosophy’) and a quotation from Seneca on the importance of preparing for death.

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Shakespeare Survey , pp. 223 - 236
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2007

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