Skull given by Victor Hugo to Sarah Bernhardt


This human skull was given to the French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) by the novelist Victor Hugo (1802–1885). Before presenting this unusual gift, Hugo inscribed a verse on the cranium about the sadness of the body once the soul has departed. The verse, originally in French, reads:

Skeleton, what have you done with your soul?
Lamp, what have you done with your flame?
Empty cage, what have you done with
The beautiful bird that used to sing?
Volcano, what have you done with your lava?
Slave, what have you done with your master?

Later Bernhardt used it as Yorick’s skull for the famous graveyard scene, when she played the title role in Hamlet in 1899.

Bernhardt described Hamlet as having the greatest scope for ‘the exploration of sensations and human sorrows’. She called for actors in the part to make the audience ‘see a phantom compounded of the atoms of life and of the decay that leads to death’. For Bernhardt, that phantom is ‘a brain ceaselessly warring against the reality of things. It is a soul that longs to escape from its carnal vestment.’

Full title:
Skull used by Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) as Hamlet, inscribed with a verse by the author Victor Hugo.
late 19th century
Victor Hugo [inscriber]
© Victoria and Albert Museum
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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Victoria and Albert Museum
"Museum number: S.117-1981"

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