Wednesdays With Will – A Father and Son

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Father cries as he hugs sonWhen William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, she was pregnant with Susanna, their first child. Less than two years later, the twins, Hamnet and Judith were born.

Shakespeare left for London when Hamnet was four years old and resided there during the remainder of the boy’s brief life. The child died at the age eleven of, due, it is believed, to Bubonic Plague. One wonders how tight the parent-child bond could have been given the extended absence of father from son. Some will disagree with my assertion that, because of their circumstances, the father living in London, the son in Stratford and dying young, Shakespeare’s emotional attachment to his son was not extremely deep. (Note: Be aware, critics – I am not saying Shakespeare did not love his son.)

It has been said that some of Shakespeare’s works were written in memory of Hamnet. I present three examples to refute this claim:

  1. Because of the similarity of names, there has been speculation that Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in tribute to Hamnet. Investigation into the issue contradicts this argument. The name Hamlet is derived from a character in a Scandinavian play whose plot was similar to Shakespeare’s tragedy. (http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/hamletsources.html
  2. Many believe in Sonnet 33, line 9, the word sun refers to Hamnet:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
                        With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
                        But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
                  The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Taken alone, the reference above seems strong; however, the sonnets were written in groups of similar subject and style. When Sonnet 33 is placed in its applicable group (one that includes Sonnets 34, 35, and 36), the sun of Sonnet 33 seems not to be a reference to Hamnet.

  1. What are generally regarded as Shakespeare’s most joyful works were done in the immediate period after his son’s death. I question whether a father/playwright who was in deep despair over the loss of a child would have been as lighthearted in his writing.Note: My conclusions are open to debate, and encouraging debate has been my goal.

A last thought: It is interesting to speculate how Shakespeare might have come to terms with the loss of his son. The answer may be that he had seen or been aware of the deaths of many children. Records show that approximately one third of children of the era died before reaching adulthood. As a parent, Shakespeare would have been forced to accept Hamnet’s death as a natural condition of the times.