Shakespeare and Son: A Journey in Writing and Grieving

By Keverne Smith | Go to book overview

1
Thou Boy of Tears

Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died aged eleven in August 1596, cause unknown. How did Shakespeare react to this loss? Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, who composed moving elegies to two of his children, Shakespeare never wrote about it directly, despite the advice he puts in Prince Malcolm’s mouth a decade later, “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break” (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3, lines 209–10). Many critics have battled with, and been baffled by, this surprising absence of direct response, which might seem to confirm a current image, heightened by Shakespeare in Love, of a man who forgot about his family in Stratford while he lived, and had affairs, in London. I hope to show, however, that Shakespeare’s reactions to the loss of his young boy are in his plays, but that they are buried like fossils and require an understanding of grief processes to unearth them.

Why buried? The answer lies in Shakespeare’s period, in attitudes to maleness, and in Shakespeare himself. One of the targets of the Protestant reformers was the emotional demonstrations of grief that had evolved in the burial rituals of Medieval Catholicism. The reformers thought mourning should be moderate, rational, as befitted people believing in Christ’s promise of resurrection. Many sermons and other documents from the sixteenth and seventeenth century teach what increasingly became the official line; for instance, John Chardon’s sermon at the funeral of Sir Gawen Carew in 1584, argues that it is un-Christian to display excessive grief.1 The implication, however, is that a substantial number of people found this difficult; if they were finding it easy, there would be no need to keep

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