Saturday, 24 November 2012

Did the Death of Shakespeare's Son Affect his Work?

How did Shakespeare cope with the death of his young son?
Hamnet Shakespeare, the playwright's only son, died in August 1596 at the age of eleven. 

There have been many theories about how his young son's death may have influenced Shakespeare's work - principally Hamlet.

However, I think it's unlikely that Shakespeare exorcised his grief in just one play.

Therefore, Hamnet's death probably affected much of the Bard's work.

The Problem with Biographical Theories


There is, of course, no way to categorically know what was going on in Shakespeare's mind at the time of writing any of his works. We can make assertions, based on what was happening in his life (and the world) at any given time, but we can never say with certainty what drove Shakespeare to write a specific work. 

Therefore, biographical theories are just that: theories. As such, there has been, and always will be, a difference of opinion. For some, Hamlet is the play in which Hamnet's 'ghost' looms largest. For others, themes in several of Shakespeare's plays focus on loss (especially of a child), grief and, as in Twelfth Night, a fantasy scenario in which all ends happily.

How did Shakespeare Respond to The Death of His Son?


Does Hamlet depict Shakespeare's grief
over his son's death?
There is one other thing to consider, before looking at the plays: Hamnet's death, although tragic, was not something that would have made headlines at the time. In fact, a third of children under the age of ten died during the latter part of the sixteenth century.

Therefore, Shakespeare was far from the only parent to experience this type of loss. Sadly, it was all too commonplace.

Did high child mortality rates mean Hamnet's death was a matter-of-fact part of life that Shakespeare was able to deal with?

Unlike Ben Jonson, whose son also died, Shakespeare certainly did not write anything specifically focused on the loss of his child.

Exactly how the Bard dealt with the untimely demise of his son, we'll never know. However, there is some evidence in his work to suggest that it wasn't an event he was ever able to banish from his mind.

Hamlet and Hamnet 


Given the similarity in name and the gritty, dark content of Hamlet, it's easy to see why people assume that the play is Shakespeare's great outpouring of grief over his son's death. It is one of the Bard's most nihilistic plays - capturing the hopelessness, depression and, sometimes, insanity of one who has suddenly lost a beloved family member. 

But, of course, Hamlet wasn't a creation of Shakespeare's imagination. The story stems from Scandinavian legend, although this does not negate the possibility that Shakespeare's grief is at the root of the play.

However, Hamlet probably wasn't penned until around 1600, some four years after Hamnet's death. Of course, it's quite possible that Shakespeare would delay writing the work that mourns his son, but I think it's unlikely. I also think that there are very clear hints of Hamnet in earlier works - and I'm not alone.

Grief in Shakespeare's Comedies

Twelfth Night has a happier outcome for the twins
who thought each other dead
At the time of Hamnet's passing, Shakespeare was predominantly working on comedies. So, you'd think there would be no room for references to death, but far from it. Twelfth Night, which features the supposed death of a twin (Hamnet and Shakespeare's youngest daughter, Judith, were fraternal twins) and the miraculous reunion of Viola and Sebastian. 

In addition, Professor Richard Wheeler of the University of Illinois asserts that the theme of cross-dressing in many of Shakespeare's comedies: Twelfth Night, As Well That Ends Well, Merchant of Venice is indicative of Shakespeare's hopes for his son passing to his daughters. I'm not entirely convinced by the theory, but it's possible.

Author Bill Bryson wonders if Constance's "Grief fills the room up of my absent child" speech from  King John is in response to Hamnet's demise. However, it's not clear whether this was written before or after the young boy's death.

Other Possible References to Hamnet


Grief over a child's death is a feature of many
Shakespearean plays
There are many other events and themes in Shakespeare's plays that we could suppose are reference to the playwright's son, for example the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Lear's heart-wrenching response to Cordelia's murder, and Julius Caesar adopting Marc Anthony, because his own son is deceased.

Consequently, I don't think we should be looking for Hamnet in a specific Shakespeare play, but in the overall tone of the man's work.

It's clear that Shakespeare improved his craft. Over the years, his writing became more mature, and the depth of his characters' emotions more profound. I suspect it was life experiences, including Hamnet's death, that enabled him to write words that still speak so eloquently of the pain of loss.

Perhaps, just like Richard II, the vast majority of Shakespeare's sorrow was kept from view.

"My grief lies all within; 
And these external manners of laments 
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief 
That swells with silence in the tortured soul."

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