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…


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