Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Alas! poor Yorick.  -Hamlet (Act V, Scene One)

George Jones passed away this week. So what does that have to do with Great Books? Actually, his death has a great deal to do with Great Books. For those who aren’t familiar with who he was, George Jones was to country music sort of like what Alexander the Great was to Greek history or Julius Caesar was to Roman history. And to paraphrase one of George’s songs: who’s gonna fill their shoes? Men like these don’t come across the stage of history very often. And characters like Hamlet don’t come across the stage of drama very often. In this play Hamlet meditates on the ultimate end of all human beings, even people as great as Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar, or George Jones; or even me and you.

In Act V Hamlet is talking to his friend Horatio. They come across a couple of guys digging a grave. And Hamlet has this habit of daydreaming out loud about philosophical things. So naturally when he sees a freshly-dug grave his thoughts take off: what’s going to happen to us Horatio? Who knows what happens to us once we’re put into the ground? Even a man like Alexander the Great will dissolve into dust. And who knows if that dust won’t someday find its way back into this world to plug up a keg of beer? Think about it, Horatio, what would Alexander say if he came back and saw his body (or what was left of it) being used in a keg of beer at a rowdy college frat party? Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Is this what we’re born for, to wind up in a beer keg? Or take Julius Caesar. Not so many years after he was assassinated his body must have turned to clay. Now imagine some peasant digging up a clod of dirt outside his house and using it to patch up a hole to keep the cold wind out. That could be Caesar’s body for all we know. Is this what we’re born for, to be plaster against bad weather? How could Horatio answer such questions? How can anyone?

Hamlet may be a melancholy man, but he does have a point. Where will any of us be a hundred years from now? Maybe we can’t say for sure where we’ll be on a map. But one thing we know for sure is that we’ll all be dead. Thinking about that kind of stuff is enough to make anybody melancholy. So most of us, most of the time, either don’t bother thinking about it or push it out of our minds when thoughts about death intrude; which brings us back to George Jones and the Great Books. When someone dies, we can’t ignore it any more. Then what? Hamlet had the same problem we do. Most people have probably seen a drawing or a painting of Hamlet holding up a skull and saying: Alas! poor Yorick. Who’s Yorick? Yorick was the George Jones of the Danish court in Hamlet’s childhood. The Danes didn’t have country music for singers to sing about broken hearts and fools in love. But they had a court jester who did essentially the same thing. Yorick brought music and laughter and joy into the royal family and courtesans. But Yorick also brought the tough truths of life to them. Hamlet was seven years old when Yorick died. Hamlet still remembers riding on his back and the jokes and songs Yorick would make up. Now nothing is left of Yorick but a silent skull. Is this the final end of us all; even me and you and George Jones? Is this the cold hard truth about life? George Jones was confronted with the same cold hard truth and wrote a song about it for his own “court” of country music fans: “You don't know who I am /But I know all about you… I'm gonna say this just one time / Time is running out on you / You best remember me my friend / I am the cold hard truth.” Shakespeare couldn’t have said it any better. George Jones, 1931-2013, RIP.


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