Saturday, March 5, 2011


William Shakespeare (18) married Anne Hathaway (26) in November of 1582. In May of 1583 Anne gave birth to their first born Susanna. Two years later Susanna was followed by twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith. In the years following the twins births there is little known about what William Shakespeare did until he showed up on the London scene in 1592. In 1596 Hamnet (11) died of unknown causes (it is questioned as to whether he might have died of the bubonic plague or drowning) and thus William Shakespeare's only son and male heir was gone.

Did the death of his son effect his writing? Did his family life influence his works?

First let us take a look at an estimated chronology of Shakespeare's plays.

  • 1590 (1623) Henry VI, Part I

  • 1590 (1594) Henry VI, Part II 

  • 1590 (1595) Henry VI, Part III   

  • 1592 (1602) Richard III 

  • 1592 (1623) The Comedy of Errors

  • 1593 (1594) Titus Andronicus

  • 1593 (1594) Taming of the Shrew

  • 1594 (1623) The Two Gentlemen of Verona 

  • 1594 (1598) Love's Labour's Lost 

  • 1594-95 (1597) Romeo and Juliet 

  • 1595 (1597) Richard II

  • 1595 (1600) A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • 1596 (1622) King John   

  • 1596 (1600) The Merchant of Venice

  • 1597 Henry IV, Part I

  • 1598 (1600) Henry IV, Part II

  • 1599 (1600) Henry V

  • 1599 (1623) Julius Caesar

  • 1599 (1600) Much Ado About Nothing

  • 1599 (1623) As You Like It

  • 1597-1600 (1602) The Merry Wives of Windsor

  • 1599-1600 (1603) Hamlet

  • 1602 (1623) Twelfth Night

  • 1602 (1609) Troilus and Cressida  

  • 1603 (1623) All's Well That Ends Well

  • 1603 (1622) Othello

  • 1603-06 (1608) King Lear

  • 1603-06 (1623) Macbeth

  • 1603 (1623) Measure For Measure  

  • 1606 (1623) Antony and Cleopatra  

  • 1607 (1623) Coriolanus

  • 1607 (1623) Timon of Athens

  • 1608 (1609) Pericles, Prince of Tyre

  • 1609 (1623) Cymbeline

  • 1609-10 (1623) The Winter's Tale

  • 1611 (1623) The Tempest

  • 1612 (1623) Henry VIII

  • So did the death of Hamnet affect William Shakespeare and lead to his writing of Hamlet?

    Unlike other poets of the time (Ben Jonson) Shakespeare did not write a play or sonnet that was specifically in response to his sons death. However critics have often linked several of the plays post 1596 with Hamnet's death. For example, In King John, probably written in 1596, 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.

    Richard Wheeler theorises that Hamnet's death influenced the writing of Twelfth Night. In Twelfth Night  twins, a brother and sister, are separated in a shipwreck and the boy is assumed dead by her sister who is grief stricken. However by the end the brother is shown to be alive and they are happily reunited.

    Wheeler also posits the idea that the women who disguise themselves as men in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night are a representation of William Shakespeare's seeing his son's hope in his daughters after Hamnet's death.

    Many other plays of Shakespeare's have theories surrounding Hamnet. These include questions as to whether a scene in Julius Caesar, in which Caesar adopts Mark Antony as a replacement for his dead son is related to Hamnet's death, and whether Alonso's guilt over his son's death in The Tempest is related.

    Sonnet 37 may have also been written in response to Hamnet's death. "As a decrepit father takes delight / To see his active child do deeds of youth / So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spight / Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth." Again this is a vague illusion.

    The grief can echo also in one of the most painful passages Shakespeare ever wrote, in the end of King Lear where the ruined monarch recognizes his daughter is dead: No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!

    Most speculation however surrounds Hamlet, written in 1599-1601, four years after the death of Hamnet. In those four years Shakespeare wrote some of his funniest comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It.

    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. 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. Shakespeare was singularly alert to whatever attracted London crowds, and he had by now long experience of dusting off old plays and making them startlingly new. And Shakespeare had certainly seen the earlier Hamlet play, probably on multiple occasions.

    So it is highly likely that Shakespeare was not wholly influenced by the death of his son in his decision to write Hamlet.

    However starting with Hamlet Shakespeare's plays gradually grow darker and he doesn't write the light comedies that he was known for. All of the comedies post Hamlet (excepting Twelfth Night) are dark comedies that have a dismal tones despite the fact that they have happy endings. These comedies (also called his problem plays and his romances) all start out with tragic elements and are very bleak but in the end the characters reconcile and all ends happily.

    So these are a few of my thoughts at the present moment in regards to William Shakespeare. This brings a close to the Shakespeare week and I shall be back to track next week with posts on sewing and costuming with the occasional diversion to literature.


    Miss Pickwickian said...


    Although I would argue many of Shakespeare's plays that are called "dark" or "darker" are not all that dark.

    Enjoyed your posts.

    Laura said...

    I agree that the "dark" plays are not necassarily really "dark" when held on their own. They are just labeled "dark" in comparison to his light and merry comedies and lighter tragedies.