A 19th-century engraving imagining Shakespeare's family life. Hamnet stands behind Shakespeare, left of centre.
|Born||baptised 2 February 1585|
|Died||buried 11 August 1596 (aged 11)|
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Hamnet Shakespeare (baptised 2 February 1585 – buried 11 August 1596) was the only son of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, and the fraternal twin of Judith Shakespeare. He died at the age of 11. Some Shakespearean scholars speculate on the relationship between Hamnet and his father's later play Hamlet, as well as on possible connections between Hamnet's death and the writing of King John, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night.
Little is known about Hamnet. Hamnet and his twin sister Judith were born in Stratford-upon-Avon and baptised on 2 February 1585 in Holy Trinity Church by Richard Barton of Coventry. The twins were probably named after Hamnet Sadler, a baker, who witnessed Shakespeare's will, and his wife, Judith. According to the record of his baptism on 23 March 1560 in the Register of Solihull he was christened 'Hamlette Sadler'.
By the time Hamnet was four, his father was already a London playwright and, as his popularity grew, he was probably not regularly at home in Stratford with his family. Honan believes that Hamnet may have completed Lower School, which would have been normal, before his death at the age of eleven (possibly from the bubonic plague). He was buried in Stratford on 11 August 1596. At that time in England about a third of all children died before age 10.
Connection to Hamlet and other plays
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;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?
Scholars have long speculated about the influence – if any – of Hamnet's death upon William Shakespeare's writing. Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, who wrote a lengthy piece on the death of his own son, Shakespeare, if he wrote anything in response, did so more subtly. At the time his son died, Shakespeare was writing primarily comedies, and that writing continued until a few years after Hamnet's death, when his major tragedies were written. It is possible that his tragedies gained depth from his experience.
Biographical readings, in which critics would try to connect passages in the plays and sonnets to specific events in Shakespeare's life, are at least as old as the Romantic period. Many famous writers, scholars, and critics from the 18th to the early 20th century pondered the connection between Hamnet's death and Shakespeare's plays. These scholars and critics included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edward Dowden, and Dover Wilson, among others. In 1931, C. J. Sisson stated that such interpretations had "gone too far". In 1934, Shakespeare scholar R. W. Chambers agreed, saying that Shakespeare's most cheerful work was written after his son's death, making a connection doubtful. In the mid-to-late 20th century, it became increasingly unpopular for critics to connect events in authors' lives with their work, not just for Shakespeare, but for all writing. More recently, however, as the ideas of the New Criticism have lost prominence, biographical interpretations of Hamnet's relationship to his father's work have begun to re-emerge.
Some theories about Hamnet's influence on his father's plays are centered on the tragedy Hamlet, composed in 1599 or 1601. The traditional view, that grief over his only son's death may have spurred Shakespeare to write the play, is in all likelihood incorrect. Although the names Hamlet and Hamnet were considered virtually interchangeable, and Shakespeare's own will spelled Hamnet Sadler's first name as "Hamlett", the name of the character in the play has a different derivation. Prince Hamlet's name is more often thought to be related to the Amleth character in Saxo Grammaticus' Vita Amlethi, an old Scandinavian legend that is very similar to Shakespeare's story. More recent scholarship has argued that, while Hamlet has a Scandinavian origin and may have been selected as a play subject for commercial reasons, Shakespeare's grief over the loss of his only son may lie at the heart of the tragedy.
Speculation over Hamnet's influence on Shakespeare's works is not limited to Hamlet. Richard Wheeler theorises that Hamnet's death influenced the writing of Twelfth Night, which centres on a girl who believes that her twin brother has died. In the end, she finds that her brother never died, but is alive and well. 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. Bill Bryson argues that Constance's speech from the third act of King John (written mid-1590s) was inspired by Hamnet's death. In the speech she laments the loss of her son, Arthur. It is possible, though, that Hamnet was still alive when Constance's lament was written. 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, or whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragic reflection of the loss of a son, or 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. Shakespeare says in it, "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." Still, if this is an allusion to Hamnet, it is a vague one. 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!"
Michael Wood suggests in In Search of Shakespeare that sonnet 33 might have nothing to do with the so-called Fair Youth sonnets, that it alludes to the death of the poet's son, Hamnet in 1596 at age 11, and that there is an implied pun on "sun" and "son": "Even so my sun one early morn did shine, with all triumphant splendour on my brow; but out, alack, he was but one hour mine, the region cloud hath mask'd him from me now". If this is the case the link of sonnet 33 with sonnet 34, sonnet 35 and sonnet 36 would be entirely coincidental and spurious. Note that in sonnet 33 (1) there is no overt "you" or "thou" (contrary to most of the sonnets and in particular to sonnets 34, 35 and 36 which all three use "thou") and (2) there is no mention of the supposed "fault" committed by the addressee towards the poet (as in sonnets 34 and 35) nor of the supposed "guilt" borne by the poet which may affect the addressee's reputation (as in sonnet 36).
Notes and references
- The Constance's lamentation speech is in King John, 3.4.95–107
- Chambers 1930a, p. 18.
- Schoenbaum 1987, p. 94.
- Chambers 1930a, p. 21.
- Schoenbaum 1987, p. 224.
- Dexter 2008, pp. 34–6.
- Fry 1904, p. 16.
- Nelson n.d.
- Wheeler 2000.
- Honan 1999, pp. 235–6.
- Mowat et al. n.d.
- Greenblatt 2004a.
- Chambers 1930b, pp. 3–4.
- Hansen 1983, pp. 1–5.
- Greenblatt 2004b.
- Bryson 2007, p. 119.
- Bryson, Bill (2007). Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Eminent Lives. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0062564627.
- Chambers, Edmund Kerchever (1930). William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. LCCN 31002409. OCLC 353406. OL 1182161W.
- Chambers, Edmund Kerchever (1930). William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. II. Oxford: Clarendon Press. LCCN 31002409. OCLC 353406. OL 1182161W.
- Dexter, Gary (2008). Why Not Catch-21?. Frances Lincoln. ISBN 978-0-7112-2925-9.
- Fry, Edward Alexander, ed. (1904). The Register of Solihull, Co. Warwick. I, 1538–1668. Exeter: The Parish Register Society. LCCN 05036801. OCLC 18970847. OL 6962359M.
- Greenblatt, Stephen (21 October 2004). "The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 17 June 2017.
- Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-05057-2.
- Hansen, William, ed. (1983). Saxo Grammaticus and the Life of Hamlet: A Translation, History, and Commentary. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-2318-8.
- Honan, Park (1999). Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780199774753.
- Mowat, Barbara; Werstine, Paul; Poston, Michael; Niles, Rebecca, eds. (n.d.). "The Life and Death of King John". Folger Digital Texts. Folger Shakespeare Library. Retrieved 17 June 2017.
- Nelson, Alan H. (n.d.). "William Shakespeare's last will and testament: original copy including three signatures". Shakespeare Documented. Folger Shakespeare Library. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
- Schoenbaum, Samuel (1987). William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-505161-0.
- Wheeler, Richard P. (2000). "Deaths in the Family: The Loss of a Son and the Rise of Shakespearean Comedy". Shakespeare Quarterly. Folger Shakespeare Library. 51 (2): 127–53. doi:10.2307/2902129. eISSN 1538-3555. ISSN 0037-3222. JSTOR 2902129 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)).