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The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet

1.

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:

Thus play I in one person many people,

And none contented. Sometimes am I king;

Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar,

And so I am. Then crushing penury

Persuades me I was better when a king,

Then am I kinged again, and by and by

Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,

And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased

With being nothing.

(V.5.31–41)

Richard II characteristically rehearses the drama of his fall from kingship as a fall into nothingness and then fashions his experience of lost identity—“whate’er I be”—into an intricate poem of despair.

Written in 1595, Richard II marked a major advance in the playwright’s ability to represent inwardness, but Julius Caesar, written four years later, shows that, not content with what he has mastered, Shakespeare subtly experimented with new techniques. Alone, pacing in his orchard in the middle of night, Brutus begins to speak:

It must be by his death. And for my part

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,

And that craves wary walking. Crown him: that!

(II.1.10–15)

This soliloquy is far less fluid, less an elegant and self-conscious poetic meditation, than the prison soliloquy of Richard II. But it has something startlingly new: the unmistakable marks of actual thinking. Richard speaks of hammering it out, but the words he utters are already highly polished. Brutus’s words by contrast seem to flow immediately from the still inchoate toing-and-froing of his wavering mind, as he grapples with a set of momentous questions: How should he respond to the crowd’s desire to crown the ambitious Caesar? How can he balance his own personal friendship with Caesar against what he construes to be the general good? How might Caesar, who has thus far served that general good, change his nature and turn dangerous if he is crowned? “It must be by his death”: without prelude, the audience is launched into the midst of Brutus’s obsessive brooding. It is impossible to know if he is weighing a proposition, trying out a decision, reiterating words that someone else has spoken. He does not need to mention whose death he is contemplating, nor does he need to make clear—for it is already part of his thought—that it will be by assassination.

Brutus is speaking to himself, and his words have the peculiar shorthand of the brain at work. “Crown him: that!”—the exclamation is barely comprehensible, except as a burst of passionate anger provoked by a phantasmatic image passing at that instant through the speaker’s mind. The spectators are pulled in eerily close, watching firsthand the forming of a fatal resolution—a determination to assassinate Caesar—that will change the world. A few moments later Brutus, intensely self-aware, describes for himself the molten state of consciousness in which he finds himself:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.

The genius and the mortal instruments

Are then in counsel, and the state of man,

Like to a little kingdom, suffers then

The nature of an insurrection.

(II.1.63–69)

Was it at this moment, in 1599, that Shakespeare first conceived of the possibility of writing about a character suspended, for virtually the whole length of a play, in this strange interim? Brutus himself is not such a character: by the middle of Julius Caesar, he has done the dreadful thing, the killing of his mentor and friend—possibly his own father—and the remainder of the play teases out the fatal consequences of his act.

If Shakespeare did not grasp it at once, then certainly by the following year he understood perfectly that there was a character, already popular on the Elizabethan stage, whose life he could depict as one long phantasm or hideous dream. That character, the prince of the inward insurrection, was Hamlet.

2.

Even in its earliest-known medieval telling, Hamlet’s saga was the story of the long interval between the first motion—the initial impulse or design—and the acting of the dreadful thing. In Saxo the Grammarian’s account, the murder of Amleth’s father Horwendil (the equivalent of Shakespeare’s old King Hamlet) by his envious brother Feng (the equivalent of Claudius) was not a secret. Glossing over “fratricide with a show of righteousness,” the assassin claimed that Horwendil had been cruelly abusing his gentle wife Gerutha. In reality, the ruthless Feng had simply seized both his brother’s kingdom and his wife. No one was prepared to challenge the usurper. The only potential challenger was Horwen- dil’s young son Amleth, for by the time-honored code of this pre-Christian society a son was strictly obliged to avenge his father’s murder.

Feng understood this code as well as anyone, so that it was reasonable to expect that he would quickly move to eliminate the future threat. If the boy did not instantly come up with a clever stratagem, his life would be exceedingly brief. In order to grow to adulthood—to survive long enough to be able to exact revenge—Amleth feigned madness, persuading his uncle that he could never pose a danger. Filthy and lethargic, he sat by the fire, aimlessly whittling away at small sticks and turning them into barbed hooks. Though the wary Feng repeatedly used intermediaries (the precursors of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern) to try to discern some hidden sparks of intelligence behind his nephew’s apparent idiocy, Amleth cunningly avoided detection. He bided his time, slipped out of traps, and made secret plans. Mocked as a fool, treated with contempt and derision, he eventually succeeded in burning to death Feng’s entire retinue and in running his uncle through with a sword. He summoned an assembly of nobles, explained why he had done what he had done, and was enthusiastically acclaimed as the new king. “Many could have been seen marvelling how he had concealed so subtle a plan over so long a space of time.”

Amleth thus spends years in the interim state that Brutus can barely endure for a few days. Shakespeare had developed the means to represent the psychological experience of such a condition—something that neither Saxo nor his followers even dreamed of being able to do. He saw that the Hamlet story, ripe for revision, would enable him to make a play about what it is like to live inwardly in the queasy interval between a murderous design and its fulfillment. The problem, however, is that the theater is not particularly tolerant of long gestation periods: to represent the child Hamlet feigning idiocy for years in order to reach the age in which he could act would be exceedingly difficult to render dramatically exciting. The obvious solution, probably already reached in the lost play, is to start the action at the point in which Hamlet has come of age and is ready to undertake his act of revenge.

In Saxo the Grammarian’s Hamlet, as in the popular tale by Belleforest, no ghost appeared. There was no need for a ghost, for the murder was public knowledge, as was the son’s obligation to take revenge. But when he set out to write his version of the Hamlet story, either following Kyd’s lead or on his own, Shakespeare made the murder a secret. Everyone in Denmark believes that old Hamlet was fatally stung by a serpent. The ghost appears in order to tell the terrible truth: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown” (I.5.39–40).

Shakespeare’s play begins just before the ghost reveals the murder to Hamlet and ends just after Hamlet exacts his revenge. Hence the decisive changes in the plot—from a public killing known to everyone to a secret murder revealed to Hamlet alone by the ghost of the murdered man—enabled the playwright to focus almost the entire tragedy on the consciousness of the hero suspended between his “first motion” and “the acting of a dreadful thing.” But something in the plot has to account for this suspension. After all, Hamlet is no longer, in this revised version, a child who needs to play for time, and the murderer has no reason to suspect that Hamlet has or can ever acquire any inkling of his crime. Far from keeping his distance from his nephew (or setting subtle tests for him), Claudius refuses to let Hamlet return to university, genially calls him “our chiefest courtier, cousin, and son,” and declares that he is next in succession to the throne. Once the ghost of his father has disclosed the actual cause of death—“Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/But this most foul, strange, and unnatural”—Hamlet, who has full access to the unguarded Claudius, is in the perfect position to act immediately. And such instantaneous response is precisely what Hamlet himself anticipates:

Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift

As meditation or the thought of love

May sweep to my revenge.

(I.5.29–31)

The play should be over then by the end of the first act. But Hamlet emphatically does not sweep to his revenge. As soon as the ghost vanishes, he tells the sentries and his friend Horatio that he intends “to put an antic disposition on”—that is, to pretend to be mad. The behavior made perfect sense in the old version of the story, where it was a ruse to deflect suspicion and to buy time. The emblem of that time, and the proof of the avenger’s brilliant, long-term planning, were the wooden hooks that the boy Amleth, apparently deranged, endlessly whittled away on with his little knife. These were the means that, at the tale’s climax, Amleth used to secure a net over the sleeping courtiers, before he set the hall on fire. What had looked like mindless distraction turned out to be brilliantly strategic. But in Shakespeare Hamlet’s feigned madness is no longer coherently tactical. Shakespeare in effect wrecked the powerful and coherent plot that his sources conveniently provided him. And out of the wreckage he constructed what most modern audiences would regard as the best play that he had ever written.

Far from offering a cover, the antic disposition leads the murderer to set close watch upon Hamlet, to turn to his counselor Polonius for advice, to discuss the problem with Gertrude, to observe Ophelia carefully, to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy upon their friend. Instead of leading the court to ignore him, Hamlet’s madness becomes the object of everyone’s endless speculation. And, strangely enough, the speculation sweeps Hamlet along with it: “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth.” “But wherefore I know not”—Hamlet, entirely aware that he is speaking to court spies, does not breathe a word of his father’s ghost, but then it is not at all clear that the ghost is actually responsible for his profound depression. Already in the first scene in which he appears, before he has encountered the ghost, he is voicing to himself, as the innermost secret of his heart, virtually the identical disillusionment he discloses to the oily Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

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.

(I.2.132–127)

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.”

3.

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. 1

    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.

  2. 2

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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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