Hamnet filius William Shakespeare


How much can we learn about the famous playwright from the death of his son?

11-08-2010_Hamnet.mp3 Listen on Posterous

Music credit Shostakovich: String Quartet #8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (Largo) performed by Kronos Quartet

As is often the case with studying the private life of William Shakespeare, there exists just precious few personal accounts of him. In fact, for a seven year stretch of his life from 1585 to 1592, historians have coined the phrase “the lost years” to describe that period before he become a successful playwright in London. It is no surprise then that we turn to his plays and sonnets in hopes of gaining at least a faint glimpse into the mind of Shakespeare.

Though purely speculative, the beginning of these lost years coincides with the birth of two of his children, the twins Judith and Hamnet. The children were born two years after the birth of his first child, Susanna, only six months after his marriage to his wife Anne Hathaway, 8 years his senior. At age 20, Shakespeare already had three small children and a wife and so most certainly needed to secure a means of supporting them.

Many apocryphal stories exist in attempt to fill in these years of his life including the possibility he may have been a employed as a schoolmaster by Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire, a Catholic landowner who named a certain “William Shakeshafte” in his will. However, no evidence substantiates such stories other than hearsay collected after his death and, besides, the name Shakeshafte was common in the Lancashire area.

What does seem likely is that Shakespeare did not spend much time at home with his family leaving Anne to raise the children by herself and by the time his son Hamnet was four, Shakespeare was already beginning to become popular in the London theater circuit. But then in August, 1596, Hamnet, aged 11, died of unknown causes and was buried in Stratford on the 11th August, this day in history.

Exactly how Hamnet’s death affected Shakespeare is unknown. At that time in England, about a third of all children died before age 10, so his young death was not an anomaly, yet Ben Johnosn, Shakespeare’s contemporary and also a gifted writer, wrote a poem titled “On My First Sonne” on the death of his own son so it would be unfair to claim parents of the day were indifferent to such a tragedy.

And perhaps because Ben Johson, who typically wrote cynical and even mocking poetry was moved to write so beautifully about the death of his child; one part reads “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie”, that scholars look at Shakespeare’s works for clues about the man and his own inner life.

Yet immediately following Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare was writing some of his funniest and best comedies, light works which do not necessarily reflect a tormented and troubled grieving father. In fact during the mid twentieth century, the leading trend in English and American literary criticism, known as the “New Criticism”, rejected literary criticism based on extra-textual sources, especially the biography of authors of texts being analyzed.

And New Criticism makes a good point, especially in relation to Shakespeare who was the master of creating characters fully realized and rich with their own inner lives, that it’s quite possible Shakespeare was just so gifted that he gave his writing over completely to the characters and let the dialog and story take things where they may.

However, now matter how gifted a writer, one must be able to draw on some personal experience and a few years after the death of Hamnet did Shakespeare begin to write his tragedies, including Hamlet, a name virtually interchangeable with Hamnet. Though the story of Hamlet revolves around a son grieving for his father, this inner turmoil is central to the plot. Yet even on this point it is unclear if there is a relation since Hamlet is derived from the character Amleth in the old Scandinavian legend that Shakespeare’s based the play on.

Others readings of his plays posit that Hamnet’s death influenced the plays Twelfth Night, which centers on a girl who believes her twin brother has died, Romeo and Juliet; possibly being a tragic reflection of the loss of a son or even Alonso’s guilt over his son’s death in The Tempest.

Of course, this is all mere speculation since all we have to go on are the plays themselves and any meaning we derive from them must be tempered with the fact that Shakespeare was a successful dramatist who understood how to write financially successful plays.

Still though, Shakespeare had to find inspiration for his characters from somewhere and since, as the old saying goes “write what you know”, it is not unreasonable to assume he interjected his plays with his own personal feelings and grief. And nowhere is this more apparent than in King Lear where at the end of the play the ruined monarch recognizes his daughter is dead and in one of the most painful passages Shakespeare ever wrote, says

Audio clip Shakespeare King Lear performed by Laurence Olivier (1983) 

“No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!”

Music credit Shostakovich: String Quartet #8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (Largo) performed by Kronos Quartet

The one thing we do know for certain that is written about Hamnet is from the clerk at Holy Trinity Church who noted in the burial register, “August 11, Hamnet filius William Shakespeare.”

And that’s this day in history for Wednesday, August 11th, 2010. I’m Dan Harlow, thanks for listening.

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Source: http://historystack.posterous.com/hamnet-filius-william-shakespeare

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This entry was published on August 29, 2012 at 1:25 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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