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The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet

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Shakespeare was in the business, all of his life, of probing the passions of his characters and arousing the passions of his audiences. His skill in doing so is almost universally acknowledged to have been unrivaled, but the inner sources of this skill remain largely unknown. Scholarship has tirelessly reconstructed at least something of his wide-ranging, eclectic reading, but his own passionate life—his access through personal experience and observation to the intense emotions he represents—is almost completely mysterious. None of his letters, working notes, diaries, or manuscripts (with the possible exception of “Hand D” in Sir Thomas More) survives. His sonnets have been ransacked for autobiographical evidence, but, though written in the first person, they are baffling, elusive, and probably deliberately opaque.

Over centuries of feverish speculation, the most compelling reflections on the presence of Shakespeare’s emotional life in his plays—preeminently, James Joyce’s brilliant pages in Ulysses, but there are many others—have focused on Hamlet. This biographical attention to a work deriving from recycled materials and written for the public stage would seem inherently implausible, were it not for the overwhelming impression on readers and spectators alike that the play must have emerged in an unusually direct way from the playwright’s inner life, indeed that at moments the playwright was barely in control of his materials. I will attempt in what follows to trace Hamlet back to a personal experience of grief and to sketch a long-term aesthetic strategy that seems to have emerged from this experience.

Sometime in the spring or summer of 1596 Shakespeare must have received word that his only son Hamnet, eleven years old, was ill. Whether in London or on tour with his company he would at best have only been able to receive news intermittently from his family in Stratford, but at some point in the summer he presumably learned that Hamnet’s condition had worsened and that it was necessary to drop everything and hurry home. By the time the father reached Stratford the boy—whom, apart from brief visits, Shakespeare had in effect abandoned in his infancy—may already have died. On August 11, 1596, Hamnet was buried at Holy Trinity Church: the clerk duly noted in the burial register, “Hamnet filius William Shakspere.”

Unlike Ben Jonson and others who wrote grief-stricken poems about the loss of beloved children, Shakespeare published no elegies and left no direct record of his paternal feelings. It is sometimes said that parents in Shakespeare’s time could not afford to invest too much love and hope in any one child. One out of three children died by the age of ten, and overall mortality rates were by our standards exceedingly high. Death was a familiar spectacle; it took place at home, not out of sight. When Shakespeare was fourteen, his seven-year-old sister Anne died, and there must have been many other occasions for him to witness the death of children.

In the four years following Hamnet’s death, the playwright, as many have pointed out, wrote some of his sunniest comedies: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It. This fact is, for some, decisive evidence that the father’s grief must at most have been brief. But the plays of these years were by no means uniformly cheerful, and at moments they seem to reflect an experience of deep personal loss. In King John, probably written in 1596 just after the boy was laid to rest, Shakespeare depicted a mother so frantic at the loss of her son that she is driven to thoughts of suicide. Observing her, a clerical bystander remarks that she is mad, but she insists that she is perfectly sane: “I am not mad; I would to God I were!” Reason, she says, and not madness, has put the thoughts of suicide in her head, for it is her reason that tenaciously keeps hold of the image of her child. When she is accused of perversely insisting on her grief, she replies with an eloquent simplicity that breaks free from the tangled plot:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

(III.4.93–97)

If there is no secure link between these lines and the death of Ham-net, there is, at the very least, no reason to think that Shakespeare simply buried his son and moved on unscathed. He might have brooded inwardly and obsessively, even as he was making audiences laugh at Falstaff in love or at the wit contests of Beatrice and Benedick.1 Nor is it implausible that it took years for the trauma of his son’s death fully to erupt in Shakespeare’s work or that it was triggered by an accidental conjunction of names. For Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Shakespeare evidently named his son after his recusant neighbor and friend Hamnet Sadler, who was still alive in March 1616 when Shakespeare drew up his will and left 26 shillings, 8 pence to “Hamlett Sadler…to buy him a ringe.”

Writing a play about Hamlet, in or around 1600, may not have been Shakespeare’s own idea. At least one play, now lost, about the Danish prince who avenges his father’s murder had already been performed on the English stage, successfully enough to be casually alluded to by contemporary writers, as if everyone had seen it or at least knew about it. Someone in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with an eye on revenues, may simply have suggested to Shakespeare that the time might be ripe for a new, improved version of the Hamlet story. For that matter, with his high stakes in the company’s profits, Shakespeare was sin- gularly alert to whatever attracted London crowds, and he had by now long experience of dusting off old plays and making them startlingly new. The likely author of the early play, Thomas Kyd, was no obstacle: he had died back in 1594, at the age of thirty-six, possibly broken by the torture inflicted upon him when he was interrogated about the charges of blasphemy and atheism brought against his roommate, Christopher Marlowe. In any case, neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries were squeamish about stealing from each other.

Shakespeare had certainly seen the earlier Hamlet play, probably on multiple occasions. When he set to work on his new tragedy, he likely had it by heart—or as much of it as he chose to remember. It is impossible to determine, in this case, whether he sat down with books open before him—as he clearly did, for example, in writing Antony and Cleopatra—or relied on his memory, but he had also certainly read one and probably more than one version of the old Danish tale of murder and revenge. At the very least, to judge from the play he wrote, he carefully read the story as narrated in French by François de Belleforest, whose collection of tragic tales was a publishing phenomenon in the late sixteenth century. Belleforest had taken the Hamlet story from a chronicle of Denmark compiled in Latin in the late twelfth century by a Dane known as Saxo the Grammarian. And Saxo in turn was recycling written and oral legends that reached back for centuries before him. Here then, as so often throughout his career, Shakespeare was working with known materials—a well-established story, a familiar cast of characters, a set of predictable excitements.

If Shakespeare had died in 1600 it would have been difficult to think that anything was missing from his achievement and still more difficult to think that anything yet unrealized was brewing in his work. But Hamlet makes it clear that Shakespeare had been quietly, steadily developing a special technical skill. This development may have been entirely deliberate, the consequence of a clear, ongoing professional design, or it may have been more haphazard and opportunistic. The achievement was, in any case, gradual: not a sudden, once-and-for-all discovery or a grandiose invention, but the subtle refinement of a particular set of representational techniques. By the turn of the century Shakespeare was poised to make an epochal breakthrough. He had perfected the means to represent inwardness.

The task of conveying an inner life is an immensely challenging one in drama, since what the audience sees and hears is always in some sense or other public utterance—the words that the characters say to one another or, in occasional asides and soliloquies, directly to the onlookers. Playwrights can pretend, of course, that the audience is overhearing a kind of internal monologue, but it is difficult to keep such monologues from sounding “stagey.” Richard III, written in 1591 or 1592, is hugely energetic and powerful, with a marvelous, unforgettable main character, but when that character, alone at night, reveals what is going on inside him, he sounds oddly wooden and artificial:

It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes. I am.

Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why?

Lest I revenge? Myself upon myself?

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O no, alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not.

(V.5.134–145)

Shakespeare is dramatizing his chronicle source, which states that Richard could not sleep on the eve of his death, because he felt unwonted pricks of conscience. But though it has a staccato vigor, the soliloquy, as a way of sketching inner conflict, is schematic and mechanical, as if within the character on stage there was simply another tiny stage on which puppets were performing a Punch-and-Judy show.

In Richard II, written some three years later, there is a comparable moment that marks Shakespeare’s burgeoning skills. Deposed and imprisoned by his cousin Bolingbroke, the ruined king, shortly before his murder, looks within himself:

I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world;

And for because the world is populous,

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer it out.

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,

My soul the father, and these two beget

A generation of still-breeding thoughts.

(V.5.1–7)

Much of the difference between the two passages has to do with the very different characters: the one a murderous tyrant full of manic energy, the other a spoiled, narcissistic, self-destructive poet. But the turn from one character to the other is itself significant: it signals Shakespeare’s growing interest in the hidden processes of interiority. Locked in a windowless room, Richard II watches himself think, struggling to forge a metaphoric link between his prison and the world, reaching a dead end, and then forcing his imagination to renew the effort: “Yet I’ll hammer it out.” The world, crowded with people, is not, as he himself recognizes, remotely comparable to the solitude of his prison cell, but Richard wills himself to generate—out of what he pictures as the intercourse of his brain and soul—an imaginary populace. What he hammers out is a kind of inner theater, akin to that already found in Richard III’s soliloquy, but with a vastly increased complexity, subtlety, and above all self-consciousness. Now the character himself is fully aware that he has constructed such a theater, and he teases out the bleak implications of the imaginary world he has struggled to create:

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    In “Death in the Family: The Loss of a Son and the Rise of Shakespearean Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 51 (2000), pp. 127–153, Richard P. Wheeler argues that the death of Hamnet left significant traces in the great comedies, particularly in Twelfth Night.

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