Yorick was a King's jester, for King Hamlet, and he is dead at the time of Hamlet. His skull is unearthed at the graveyard, or at least the Clown Sexton claims it's his. Hamlet uses the skull as his object of contemplation while making the famous "alas, poor Yorick" speech.
The human skull, as an object of contemplation, was a commonplace of the Elizabethan era, and earlier in the Renaissance. The point of the skull was to symbolize the transience of life on earth, and so to direct the thoughts, of any thoughtful man, toward higher principles.
The image at left shows a treatment of the subject by Frans Hals. Since the painting dates from 1626-28, it might have been inspired by Hamlet.
The name "Yorick" is apparently the English word "yore" recast as a Danish name, on the pattern of "Rorick." Thus, it means "a Danish man of yore." The name perfectly suits a Danish person of an earlier time.
The reason why Shakespeare used the pattern of "Rorick" may be discernible, or, one can make an informed guess, anyway. The obsolete English word "roric" is from the Latin and means "dewy." We recall Hamlet saying in Scene 2 how he wished his flesh would "Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew." Thus, Shakespeare expressly associated death with becoming "dewy." That implies "roric," or in terms of a Danish name, Rorick (or in more modern spelling, Roric, which exactly imitates the English word.) The name, Rorick/Rorik, does appear in Saxo's Amleth. (According to Saxo, Rorik was the Danish king at the time of Amleth; Amleth's father Horwendil and Horwendil's brother Feng were appointed, by Rorik, as co-rulers of Jutland.)
One may speculate - only speculate, since there is no documentary evidence - "Rorick" could have been the first thought for the name, based on the name "Roric" appearing in the Amleth source, and, within Hamlet, to carry through on the "dewy" idea that Hamlet expressed earlier.
However, if the name "Rorick" were used, there is an obvious problem with the sound. (One must never lose sight of the fact that the dialogue was written to be spoken.) In the phrase, "poor Rorick," the terminal '-r' of "poor" and the initial 'R-' of Rorick run together, and it makes the name sound like "Orick." That wouldn't do. The name Rorick would have been excellent for meaning, but unacceptable for sound in the phrase. So, a change in the initial letter of the name was dictated, and, building on the English word "yore" we get "Yorick," which is excellent for both sense and sound.
This is not to imply one can read Shakespeare's mind. It is an analysis to show a way the name "Yorick" could have been reached, founded directly upon the play dialogue ("dewy") and the Amleth source (Rorik) but with a change in the initial letter required for sound, (one cannot hear the name clearly in the phrase "poor Rorick.") The relevance of this analysis, is to ideas found in the history of Hamlet commentary, where various writers have supposed that "Yorick" is a corruption of "York," or, is an equivalent to the German name for "George," and other efforts have been made to try to associate "Yorick" with known proper names. I do not think those attempts, to associate "Yorick" with known proper names, have validity.
I conclude that the name Yorick is most likely Shakespeare's coinage, to express a concept directly relevant to his play. Shakespeare, himself, should get all the credit for "Yorick," I believe.
First Quarto -- Yoricke and the possessive is printed "Yorickes"
Second Quarto -- Yoricke but the possessive is printed "Yoricks"
First Folio -- Yorick and the possessive "Yoricks"
Themes and Motifs
The Theme most relevant to Yorick is:
Yorick appears in: no Scene, but his skull is a subject of speech in Scene 19.
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