The image of Hamlet holding and beholding the skull in the graveyard scene of Hamlet is an icon of tragic endings that exceeds the moralizing dimensions of the standard memento mori or remembrance of death. This essay explores the significance of the image in the history of Shakespearean adaptation in the context of the art, science, and ethical philosophy of the American frontier. The focus of the essay is Herd on the Move, the most ambitious painting by artist and naturalist William Jacob Hays (1830–75). The large canvas presents the exodus of bison on the frontier to points further west and features a bison in the posture of Hamlet gazing in tragic shock and recognition at a bison skull to the side of the herd. The essay analyzes this painting to trace the theme of the extinction of species as it is embedded in the “translation of empire” and Manifest Destiny. I account for the combined resources of several histories—art, theater, nineteenth-century history and philosophy—to elucidate the ways in which Hays, as an artist and scientist, aimed to retrain the eyes of East Coast clientele so that they might see the ecological and ethical consequences of the White man’s perspective on the push west to native species, especially the bison and the Indigenous peoples with whom their existence was intimately entwined.

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