Yorick Unplugged

A king’s jester: rarely has character been so imperative in an occupation.

The line between good humour and bad must be paper-thin in a King who wields power like a broadsword. It must surely have been a tightrope walk between life and death every day.

The jester’s trade came sharply to mind when I saw the strangest of portraits commissioned by a tyrant king and featuring his beloved fool.

Around 1545, when Henry VIII was married to  Kathryn Parr, he had the oddest painting commissioned.

It hangs in Henry’s apartments in Hampton Court these days, and looking at it leaves a strange aftertaste. It depicts Henry, in all his finery, portly but not obese, with fine calves shown to their best effect. At his side is his dead wife, Jane Seymour.

On the other side is Edward, strapping and lusty, ready to face a lifetime of ruling a country. Jane died when Edward was three weeks old.

Henry’s daughters are there, but at a distance. They stand estranged, at arms length from the eerie little nuclear family, identically dressed, grave, possessed and Henry’s possessions, but not permitted into that little inner trinity.

Behind them, at both far ends of the painting are arches; doorways through which two final figures can be seen.

One, I do not know: the other, though, is unquestionably Henry’s fool, Will Somers, and his monkey.

Somers was a sharp wit. He arrived at Henry’s court, and was presented by a Calais merchant, in 1525. Henry engaged him on the spot and he outlived the monarch, dying in Elizabeth’s reign.

He poked fun cleverly, even at Wolsey. He did step over that line once or twice:ten years after his arrival Henry threatened to kill him, after he called Queen Anne a ribald and the Princess Elizabeth ‘Henry’s bastard.”

Yet he was the only one, increasingly, who could raise Henry’s spirits as his health deteriorated. Wit is a powerful weapon indeed.

Still, all good things end. On June 15, 1560, one Will Somers’ death is recorded in the records of St Leonard’s Parish, Shoreditch. His dazzling wit lasted  a matter of decades.

Shakespeare highlights how important the fool can be to a leader, again and again. And to illustrate the brittle quality of our mortal coil he chose a jester. Yorick, whom Hamlet knew well.

It must be strange to hold the skull of a childhood figure in one’s hands. What a lesson in mortality. Hamlet lists his qualities and says: here hung the lips I have kissed.

Yet, though all standing at the graveside knew the much-loved jester, there is never any attempt to read the skull, and imbue it with the qualities of its previous owner.

That comes later.

It began with an Austrian physician called Franz Jozeph Gall, some time at the beginning of the 19th century.

The mind, argued Gall, has an organ: and that organ is the brain.

Because the mind has different facets, so, he reasoned, must the brain. And the brain gives the skull its shape. Thus different elements of our psychological tendencies can be mapped out on different parts of the skull.

It’s called phrenology; it’s a bit like reflexology: and time has rendered much of it utter, total quackery.

But back then at the dawn of the nineteenth century it seemed an eminently sensible suggestion to many, albeit they may have been a little ill-informed.

There were 27 faculties, ranging from fidelity to murder and carnivorousness. By massaging the head one could determine whether an area was enlarged; and thus the personality could be read through the skull.

One might have a big benevolent bump, or a huge mound where the mechanical skill area was. Much as old wrinkled women read palms. men styling themselves phrenologists read skulls. Then they would tell you your personality.

It may have been quackery, but the Bohemians adored it. This idea that one could sum a character up visually was a sugared comfit to the artist or writer. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes both referenced phrenology, and those singular grave Bronte sisters too: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre had a kindly teacher called miss Temple whom she asserted had “a considerable organ of veneration’ – meaning a great capacity for love. Even Professor Van Helsing used it, though by the time Dracula was published, the discipline’s star was waning.

The great American nation adored it, too, and even invented an automatic machine for reading the personality using the skull:  the Automatic Electric Phrenometer.

Advances in brain science separated the wheat from the chaff. Yes, the brain has different areas dedicated to different functions; but no, one cannot read the brain’s contents through the skull.

Yorick is as inscrutable today as he would have been, 400 years ago.


42 thoughts on “Yorick Unplugged

  1. I always thought Yorick must have had very protruding teeth, to be so immediately identifiable in the skeletal form.

    What fun, to run your hand over someones head, and say “off with his head, this one have a huge organ of murder”

      1. That is certainly much more instantaneous than a long costly trial, Sidey. I think also that it comes under the definition of preventative crimefighting.

  2. The skull hides, but does not give up many secrets. I wonder if there are any automatic electronic phrenometers around still – a fun attraction at a funfair

  3. We visited Hampton Court last evening (Great Castles of Britain) . . . including the haunted gallery. How brave to jest when in the midst of ill-tempered kings prone to swinging axes! 😆

  4. Kate, I have stared at pictures of that painting of H VIII so many times, wondering who those men on the extremities were. It is great to know one of them, and to know he was a Fool.

  5. Just read your exchange with Nancy re foolhardy. As I read your work, I held to your concept of “paper-thin”. Moodiness of royalty surely rose and fell like seasonal fogs and I wondered how the poor jester knew which script to perform when suddenly called from his chambers.

    With all the non-conformity pulled by King Henry viii, didn’t he have impact that we continue to plug into today!

    1. He did. The monarch we love to loathe….and yet as I was talking to a friend today, there is a lot of myth surrounding him that we take as fact these days.

      I think his moodiness is well documented, though. Will Somers was sharp enough to handle him, however, and chase the worst of his melancholy away…

  6. A woman fool? Then Henry VIII was an Equal Opportunity Employer? Good for him. (Katherine Parr probably needed a fool to keep her spirits up. But I guess Queen Mary would have needed her more.)

    1. I have a feeling you are right. I know history is full of stereotypes and we should beware them, but Mary is always billed as a rather humourless person. Of course, that’s what stress does to one….

  7. I love the way you wove the painting into this one. I’ve been waiting to see when it would turn up, and I’ve been meaning to thank you for sending the photos. I am a Henry enthusiast, gobbling him up from whatever pages he appears, so images of his oddities? from his own apartments? Oh how lovely!

    And in with phrenology!

    It’s too bad it’s all, as you say, quackery. I should like to have my head read.

    1. I think you still can, Cameron: there are still phrenologists around. But just don’t believe a word they tell you.

      Alternatively you could seek out an automatic electric phrenometer and plug it in when nobody’s looking.

      Now there’s the beginning of a tale 😀

      1. That IS the beginning of a tale… so cruel to taunt me with the distraction of becoming reasonably fluent in quack phrenology for the sake of a story!

      2. 😀 I can just see you poring in scholarly fashion over one of the last examples at the Collection of Questionable Medical Devices in the Science Museum of Minnesota, as Felix runs happy rings around it…

      3. That said, when I get to my novel about King Henry’s dead wives and the phrenologist, I shall be sure to dedicate it to you 😉

  8. http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n01/frenolog/frenquak.htm Wherein it says: “People used the advice of phrenologists for everything, including for hiring employees, for selecting a partner for marriage and for diagnosing mental illness or the origin of psychological afflictions.”

    Is it possible that those who still espouse this practice might employ it in the selection of political leaders? Makes no less sense than the circus presently playing out before us.

  9. Fascinating post to picture, Kate. You reminded me that I need to pick up the, “Fool” by Christopher Moore. I’ve never read him before until now (reading his Sacre Bleu) but heard an interview once about Fool, a retelling of Lear by…yep, the fool. I think that for as little we know about the brain in this advanced day, feeling the skull may be just as revealing… ~

  10. How interesting is that painting! I would love to know more about that…there had to be some thought that went into the composition, and somehow I think Freud would have enjoyed critiquing it! It is so odd to me, but every once in a while I will still hear someone refer to some aspect of phrenology, usually with a little wink that they know it “probably” isn’t valid, but it is still a conversation. We just seem to so badly want to be able to predict behaviors and aptitudes. And I think we do need our fools…I think I could list a few, but I’m not that “foolish” myself to put names in print! 🙂 Debra

    1. As usual, Debra, you come straight to the heart of the matter: we are trying desperately to make ourselves readable and predictable, to find a pattern in what we perceive as random. And yet, tough we cannot take its handles and steer, the unconscious is anything but random, and very much in control.

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