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  • Date:

    1844-1923 (made)

  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This human skull was given to the French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) by the novelist Victor Hugo, after she triumphed in his historical drama Hernani in 1877. Hugo inscribed a verse on it in French celebrating the joy of the spirit in contrast to its lifeless container:

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?

Sarah Bernhardt loved to surround herself with macabre objects, and as a publicity stunt had herself photographed in her coffin when she was alive. When she played Hamlet she used this as Yorick's skull in the grave scene.

Physical description

Human skull, the top of the cranium cut through horizontally and re-attached with metal clips. The top of the cranium is inscribed with a verse by Victor Hugo.


1844-1923 (made)

Materials and Techniques


Marks and inscriptions

Top of the cranium is inscribed: 'Squelette, qu'as tu fait de l'âme? Lampe, qu'as tu fait de la flamme? Cage déserte, qu'as-tu fait De ton bel oiseau qui chantait? Volcan, qu'as-tu fait de la lave? Qu'as-tu fait de ton maître, esclave?'.


Height: 17.8 cm maximum height, Width: 15.2 cm maximum width

Object history note

This skull was presented to Sarah Bernhardt by the writer Victor Hugo in 1877, inscribed with poetry by him, after he saw her perform in his play Hernani. It was later used by Bernhardt when she played Hamlet (1899 onwards). After her death, the skull was acquired by Henry Wellcome. The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine gave it to the Theatre Museum (Department of the V&A).

Descriptive line

Skull used by Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) as Hamlet, inscribed with a verse by the author Victor Hugo.


Human bone


Theatre and Performance Collection

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