Word of the Day: Skull

August 12, 2011 in Word of the Day

I owe this word of the day to an extraordinary video by Jim Meskimen that went viral last week. In the video, he recites a famous speech by Clarence, brother to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (future Richard III), and drowned by the evil prince’s underlings in a “malmsey-butt” moments after having revealed the contents of a most extraordinary dream.

> CLARENCE [...] Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
> Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
> Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
> Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
> All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:
> Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes
> Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
> As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
> Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,
> And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.

The image of the skull in this speech, articulated in the voices of Boris Karloff, George Clooney, Tom Brokaw and Harvey Keitel by Mr Meskimen, serves in part as a memento mori (something that recalls mortality, as seen in this <a href=“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Transi_de_Ren%C3%A9_de_Chalon_(Ligier_Richier).jpg” extraordinary sixteenth-century church sculpture), and aptly so, given Clarence’s imminent end. The seventeen other skulls in Shakespeare are often caught up in the same memento mori tradition: Hamlet and the gravedigger is the most famous example, but Surrey offers an insulting reference to the trope in Richard II when he tells Fitzwater to think on “thy father’s skull”, and Romeo and Juliet contains multiple macabre references to the cranium.

One other use of skulls, not too far removed from reminding us of our mortality, is as part of some particularly gruesome image. My favourite of them all comes in The Tempest, when Prospero describes how both the condition and cure that he imposes on Antonio, Alonso, Gonzalo, and the rest.

> PROSPERO A solemnt air, and the best comforter
> To an unsettled fancy, sure thy brains,
> Now useless, boil’d within thy skull!

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