Hamnet Shakespeare: Wikis


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Hamnet's death record

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.[1][2][3][4] He died at age eleven of unknown causes. There are several theories on the relationship, if any, between Hamnet and his father's later play Hamlet.[5] Other theories postulate connections between Hamnet's death and the writing of King John, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night, among others. Such biographical theories connecting Hamnet to his father's work began to be popular as early as the 18th century and continued into the 1930s before being dismissed on the arrival of prominent, anti-biographical literary movements such as modernism and New Criticism. More recently, as New Criticism has lost favour among academics, theories surrounding Hamnet and his father's work have resurfaced.



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;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.—
I will not keep this form upon my head,
[Tearing off her head-dress.]
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure!
—Constance in King John[6]

Relatively little is known about the short life of this child, who might have carried on the Shakespeare family name had he survived to adulthood.[4] 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.[2] The twins were likely named after friends of their parents, Hamnet Sadler, a baker, and his wife, Judith.[1]

There is very little information about Hamnet's upbringing. He was likely raised principally by his mother Anne in the Henley Street house belonging to his grandfather. Germaine Greer, however, thinks it unlikely that the Shakespeare children were raised principally at Henley Street, proposing instead the possibility that the newly-wed Shakespeares set up house in a small cottage, or even took up residence at New Place as tenants early in their marriage, before purchasing it later on.[7]

By the time Hamnet was four, his father was already becoming a popular playwright in London. He may not have been at home in Stratford with his son very often, as his popularity continued to grow.[8] Honan believes that Hamnet may have completed Lower School before his death at the age of eleven, when he was buried in Stratford on 11 August 1596.[3][4] At that time in England, about a third of all children died before age 10, so his young death was not an anomaly for the time.[9]

Connection to Hamlet and other plays

Scholars have long speculated how William Shakespeare's writing was influenced by his son's death, or whether it was at all. 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.[9]

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 author's 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.[8]

Some theories about Hamnet's influence on his father's plays are centered on the tragedy Hamlet. The traditional view is that speculation that grief over his only son's death may have spurred Shakespeare to write Hamlet (composed 1599/1601) 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",[10][11] the name of the character in the play has a different derivation.[12] 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.[13] 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.[10][14]

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 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.[8] 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.[15] It is possible, though, that Hamnet was still alive when Constance's lament was written.[8] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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! [14]

Hamnet in works by other writers and artists

James Joyce's epic Ulysses contains references to Hamnet. In the Scylla & Charybdis chapter, Stephen Dedalus propounds a theory in the National Library, concerning the relation of Hamlet the play to Hamnet Shakespeare.[16]

Hamnet in popular culture

In the Doctor Who episode; The Shakespeare Code, William Shakespeare (played by Dean Lennox Kelly) mentions how the death of his son (Hamnet) almost made him mad but that the thought of being taken to Bedlam Asylum set him straight again. The Doctor and Martha Jones immediately make reference to Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and the similarity of the names.

Hamnet also appears as a character in the issue #19 of the Sandman comic book series.


  1. ^ a b Chambers, Edmund Kerchever (1930). William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. I. p.18. OCLC 353406. "A daughter Susanna was baptized on 26 May 1583, and followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, on 2 February 1585. Guesses at godparents are idle where common names, such as Shakespeare's own, are concerned. But those of the twins, which are unusual, point to Hamnet or Hamlet Sadler, a baker of Stratford, and his wife Judith." 
  2. ^ a b Schoenbaum, Samuel (1987). William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 94. ISBN 0195051610. "[…] the twins were christened […] on 2 February 1585. Richard Barton of Coventry […] officiated[.]" 
  3. ^ a b Chambers, I. p.21. “[…] Hamnet was buried at Stratford on 11 August 1596.”
  4. ^ a b c Schoenbaum, Samuel (1987). William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. china: Clarendon Press. p. 224. "[…] the parish register records the burial of […] Hamnet, aged eleven and a half. His death doomed the male line of the Shakespeares to extinction." 
  5. ^ Dexter, Gary (2008). Why Not Catch-21?. p. 34. ISBN 9780711229259. 
  6. ^ King John 3.4.1479-1491
  7. ^ Greer, Germaine. Shakespeare's Wife. New York: Harper, 2008. ISBN 0061537152
  8. ^ a b c d e Wheeler, Richard P.: "Death in the Family: The Loss of a Son and the Rise of Shakespearean Comedy," Shakespeare Quarterly, 51(2000):pp.127-153
  9. ^ a b c Honan, Park. Shakespeare. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0192825275 pp. 235-236
  10. ^ a b Greenblatt, Stephen. "The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet". N.Y. Review of Books 51.16 (Oct. 21, 2004).
  11. ^ Shakespeare's Last Will and Testament
  12. ^ Chambers, ii. p.3-4 “The resemblance of the name to that of the hero of Shakespeare's tragedy, which has a different Scandinavian origin, can hardly be more than a coincidence.”
  13. ^ Saxo, and William Hansen. 1983. Saxo Grammaticus & the Life of Hamlet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803223188. pp. 1-5.
  14. ^ a b Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-05057-2.
  15. ^ Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. New York: Atlas Books/HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 0060740221
  16. ^ James Joyce, Ulysses. Paperback. (Penguin, 2000).

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