"I Know My Clay"

Some Musical Afterlives of Hamlet's Gravedigger


  • Richard O'Brien Northumbria University


hamlet, chanson francaise, gravediggers, jake thackray, georges brassens, thomas fersen, translation, shakespeare and popular music, shakespeare in france


This article explores the role played by Hamlet 5.1 (the 'gravedigger scene') in the creation of a cultural archetype: the lugubrious gravedigger who 'sings in grave-making' and laughs in the face of death. It traces the reception of Shakespeare's gravedigger by Francophone authors from Voltaire to Hugo, outlining the cultural background within which, in 1952, the French chansonnier Georges Brassens reconstitutes this figure as the narrator of his plaintive song 'Le Fossoyeur.' I then consider two further appearances of singing gravedigger characters in songs by Jake Thackray - a Leeds-born singer-songwriter unique among his generation for the sustained influence of Brassens on his English-language work - and Thomas Fersen, a contemporary French artist who raucously celebrates what is elsewhere scorned as the character's apparent indecorum. The article contains an original version of 'Croque' translated by the author, in the spirit of Thackray's 'making [Brassens's work] happen again in English.' Across this chain of influence, the singing gravedigger emerges as a focal point for reflections on social hierarchy, abjection, and mortality which have their origins in Prince Hamlet's resonant encounter with a working man whose relationship to death is substantially different from his own. 


Author Biography

Richard O'Brien, Northumbria University

Richard O'Brien is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Northumbria University, and served as Birmingham Poet Laureate 2018-2020. His doctoral thesis considered the development of verse drama from Shakespeare to the present day, including elements of original creative practice, and his work on the creative afterlives of the early modern has appeared in Shakespeare BulletinConnotationsBen Jonson and Posterity (edited by Martin Butler and Jane Rickard, CUP, 2020) and Shakespeare & His Biographical Afterlives (edited by Paul Franssen and Paul Edmondson, Berghahn 2020). He is also the author of multiple poetry pamphlets (including The Dolphin House, forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books in 2021), and in 2017 won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors.