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The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet

O God, O God,

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t, ah fie, fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.


His father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage, public events and not secret revelations, have driven him to thoughts of “self-slaughter.”

By excising the strategic rationale for Hamlet’s madness, Shakespeare made it the central focus of the entire tragedy. The play’s key moment of psychological revelation—the moment that virtually everyone remembers—is not the hero’s plotting of revenge, not even his repeated, passionate self-reproach for inaction, but rather his contemplation of suicide: “To be or not to be; that is the question.” This suicidal urge has nothing to do with the ghost—indeed Hamlet has so far forgotten the apparition as to speak of death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns”—but rather with a soul-sickness brought on by one of the “thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.”


Hamlet marks a sufficient break in Shakespeare’s career as to suggest some more personal cause for his daring transformation both of his sources and of his whole way of writing. A simple index of this transformation is the astonishing rush of new words, words that he had never used before in some twenty-one plays and in two long poems. There are, scholars have calculated, more than six hundred of these words, many of them not only new to Shakespeare but also—compulsive, fanged, besmirch, intruding, overgrowth, pander, outbreak, unfledged, unimproved, unnerved, unpolluted, unweeded, to name only a few—new to the written record of the English language.2 Something must have been at work in Shakespeare, something powerful enough to call forth this linguistic explosion. As audiences and readers have long instinctively understood, passionate grief, provoked by the death of a loved one, lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Even if the decision to redo the old tragedy of Hamlet had come to Shakespeare from strictly commercial considerations, the coincidence of the names—the writing again and again of the name of his dead son as he composed the play—may have reopened a deep wound, a wound that had never properly healed.

But, of course, in Hamlet it is the death not of a son but of a father that provokes the hero’s spiritual crisis. If the tragedy welled up from Shakespeare’s own life—if it can be traced back to the death of Hamnet and to the repeated writing of the name—something must have made the playwright link the loss of his child to the imagined loss of his father. I say “imagined” because Shakespeare’s father was buried in Holy Trinity churchyard on September 8, 1601: the handwriting may have been on the wall, but he was almost certainly still alive when the tragedy was written and may still have been alive when it was first performed. How might the father’s death have become bound up so closely in Shakespeare’s imagination with the son’s?

Shakespeare undoubtedly returned to Stratford in 1596 for his son’s funeral. The minister, as the regulations required, would have met the corpse at the entry to the churchyard and accompanied it to the grave. Shakespeare must have stood there and listened to the words of the prescribed Protestant burial service. While the earth was thrown onto the body—perhaps by the father himself, perhaps by friends—the minister intoned the words, “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take upon himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.”

Did Shakespeare find this simple, eloquent service adequate or was he tormented with a sense that something was missing? “What ceremony else?” cries Laertes, by the grave of his sis-ter Ophelia; “What ceremony else?” Ophelia’s funeral rites have been curtailed because she is suspected of the sin of suicide, and Laertes is both shallow and rash. But the question he repeatedly asks echoes throughout Hamlet, and it articulates a concern that extends beyond the boundaries of the play. Within living memory, the whole relationship between the living and the dead had been changed. Perhaps in conservative Lancashire, where Shakespeare may have sojourned briefly as a young man, if not closer to home, he could have seen the remnants of the old Catholic practice: candles burning night and day, crosses everywhere, bells tolling constantly, close relatives wailing and crossing themselves, neighbors visiting the corpse and saying over it a Pater noster or a De profundis, alms and food distributed in memory of the dead, priests secretly paid to say Masses to ease the soul’s perilous passage through Purgatory.3

All of this had come under attack for decades; everything had been scaled back, forced underground, or eliminated outright. Above all, it was now illegal to pray for the dead.

Belief in Purgatory may well have been abused—plenty of pious Catholics thought it was—but it attempted to address fears and longings that did not simply vanish when people were told by the officials of the church and the state that the dead were beyond all earthly contact. Ceremony was not the only or even the principal issue: what mattered was whether the dead could continue to speak to the living, at least for a short time, whether the living could help the dead, whether a reciprocal bond remained. When Shakespeare stood in the churchyard, watching the dirt fall on the body of his son, did he think that his relationship with Hamnet was gone without a trace?

Perhaps. But it is also possible that he found the service, with its deliberate refusal to address the dead child as a “thou,” its reduction of ritual, its narrowing of ceremony, its denial of any possibility of communication, painfully inadequate.4 And if he could make his peace with the Protestant understanding of these things, others close to him assuredly could not. His wife, Anne, must have stood at Hamnet’s grave, and so too Shakespeare’s parents, John and Mary. Indeed the grandparents had spent far more time with the boy than the father had, for while Shakespeare was in London, they were all living together in Stratford in the same house with their daughter-in-law and the three grandchildren. They had helped to raise Hamnet, and they must have tended Hamnet through his last illness.

And about his parents’ beliefs with regard to the afterlife—specifically, about his father’s beliefs—there is some evidence. This evidence, which points to Catholic connections and half-concealed Catholic beliefs, suggests that John Shakespeare would have wanted something done for Hamnet’s soul, something that he perhaps appealed urgently to his son to do or that he undertook to do on his own. The arguments, or pleading, or tears that may have accompanied such appeals are irrevocably lost. But it is possible to surmise what Shakespeare’s father (and, presumably, his mother, linked by birth to a staunchly Cath-olic Warwickshire family) would have thought necessary, proper, charitable, loving, and, in a single word, Christian.

Recusant Catholics, prevented from regular confession and communion, were often intensely fearful of a death that would prevent the ritual opportunity to settle the sinner’s accounts with God and to show appropriate, cleansing contrition. (This is precisely the death Hamlet’s father, murdered in his sleep, has suffered: “No reck’ning made, but sent to my account/With all my imperfections on my head./O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!”) Any stains that remained after death would have to be burned away in purgatorial agony, unless the living took steps to alleviate the suffering and reduce the afterlife prison term. In 1596, at the funeral of Hamnet, the issue would almost certainly have surfaced. The boy’s soul needed the help of those who loved and cared for him. John Shakespeare may well have urged his prosperous son William to pay for masses for the dead child, just as he no doubt wanted masses to be said for his own soul. For his father was getting old and would soon be in need of the “satisfactory works” that could shorten the duration of his agony in the afterlife.

If this delicate subject was broached, did the playwright angrily shake his head no or instead quietly pay for clandestine masses for Hamnet’s soul? Did he tell his father that he could not give his son—or, looking ahead, that he would not give his father—what he craved? Did he say that he no longer believed in the whole story of the terrible prison house, poised between heaven and hell, where the sins done in life were burned and purged away?

Whatever he determined at the time, Shakespeare must have still been brooding in late 1600 and early 1601, when he sat down to write a tragedy whose doomed hero bore the name of his dead son. His thoughts may have been intensified by news that his elderly father was seriously ill back in Stratford, for the thought of his father’s death is deeply woven into the play. And the death of his son and the impending death of his father—a crisis of mourning and memory—could have caused a psychic disturbance that helps to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet.

All funerals invite those who stand by the grave to think about what, if anything, they believe in. But the funeral of one’s own child does more than this: it compels parents to ask questions of God and the universe. Shakespeare must have attended the regular services in his Protestant parish; otherwise his name would have turned up on lists of recusants. But did he believe what he heard and recited? His works suggest that he did have faith, of a sort, but it was not a faith securely bound either by the Catholic Church or by the Church of England. By the late 1590s, insofar as his faith could be situated in any institution at all, that institution was the theater, and not only in the sense that his profoundest energies and expectations were all focused there.

Shakespeare grasped that crucial death rituals in his culture had been gutted. He may have felt this with enormous pain at his son’s graveside. But he also believed that the theater—and his theatrical art in particular—could tap into the great reservoir of passionate feelings that, for him and for thousands of his contemporaries, no longer had a satisfactory outlet. The religious reformation was in effect offering him an extraordinary gift—the broken fragments of what had been a rich, complex edifice—and he knew how to accept and use this gift. He was hardly indifferent to the success he could achieve, but it was not a matter of profit alone. Shakespeare drew upon the confusion, pity, and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals—the world in which most of us continue to live—because he himself experienced those same emotions in 1596, at the funeral of his child, and later, in anticipation of his father’s death. He responded not with prayers but with the deepest expression of his being: Hamlet.

With Hamlet Shakespeare made a discovery by means of which he relaunched his entire career. The crucial breakthrough did not involve developing new themes or learning how to construct a shapelier plot; it had to do rather with an intense representation of inwardness called forth by a new technique of radical excision. He had rethought how to put a tragedy together—specifically, he had rethought the amount of causal explanation a tragic plot needed to function effectively and the amount of explicit psychological rationale a character needed to be strongly convincing. Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays—that he could provoke in the audience and himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response—if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action to be unfolded. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.

Shakespeare’s work had long been wryly skeptical of official explanations and excuses—the accounts, whether psychological or theological, of why peo- ple behave the way they do. His plays had suggested that the choices people make in love are almost entirely inexplicable and irrational—that is the conviction that generates the comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. But at least love was the clearly identifiable motive. With Hamlet, Shakespeare found that if he refused to provide himself or his audience with a familiar, comforting rationale that seems to make it all make sense, he could get to something immeasurably deeper. The key is not simply the creation of opacity, for by itself that would only create a baffling or incoherent play. Rather, Shakespeare came increasingly to rely on the inward logic, the poetic coherence that his genius and his immensely hard work had long enabled him to confer on his plays. Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, he fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions.

This conceptual breakthrough in Hamlet was technical—that is, it affected the practical choices Shakespeare made when he put plays together, starting with the enigma of the prince’s suicidal melancholy and assumed madness. But it was not only a new aesthetic strategy. The excision of motive must have arisen from something more than technical experimentation; coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it expressed Shakespeare’s deepest perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations.

  1. 2

    See G.R. Hibbard, The Oxford Shakespeare: Hamlet (Oxford University Press, 1987).

  2. 3

    For the claim that William Shakespeare was the “Shakeshafte” mentioned in the will of a wealthy Catholic magnate in Lancashire, see Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion, and Resistance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004). For a sharply dissenting view, see Rob- ert Bearman, “‘Was William Shakespeare William Shakeshafte?’ Revisited,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 53 (2002), pp. 83–94. Bearman’s arguments are in turn countered by E.A.J. Honigmann, “The Shakespeare/Shakeshafte Question, Continued,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 54 (2003), pp. 83–86. The argument is likely to continue.

  3. 4

    In The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580 (Yale University Press, 1992), Eamon Duffy gives a rich and eloquent account of the consequences to the community and the individual of the Reformation assault on Catholic ritual practices. Duffy tends to assume that those practices were almost universally efficacious, an assumption one can certainly call into question. It is less easy to call into question the cumulative force of changes that a recent scholar has characterized as a cultural revolution: see James Simpson, The Oxford English Literary History: 1350– 1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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