Shakespeare and Son: A Journey in Writing and Grieving

By Keverne Smith | Go to book overview

3
I’ll Seek Him Deeper Than E’er
Plummet Sounded

Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew by experience how precarious human life was. Robert Burton writes that, after the loss of friends and family members, “brave discreet men otherwise oftentimes forget themselves, and weep like children many months together … and will not be comforted.”1 Especially fragile were young lives. The figures of childhood mortality from Shakespeare’s England make grim reading: a third of children failed to reach the age of 10 (including Shakespeare’s two elder sisters, Joan and Margaret, and his younger sister, Anne). Indeed, 40 years ago it was thought by some historians, for instance, Lawrence Stone, that the frequency of infant and child death meant that a parent would not have felt much sorrow, but more recent research has recognized this view as naı¨ve. Particularly relevant is Michael MacDonald’s investigation of the records of Richard Napier, a clergyman who acted as a combination of astrologer, doctor, and counselor for more than 30 years, starting in 1597. MacDonald tabulated Napier’s case histories, and these show that bereavement was equal second as a cause of distress and anxiety for Napier’s patients. 134 out of the 717 (mainly ordinary) people who came to Napier, felt inwardly disturbed by grief they could not control or resolve. MacDonald comments that in this period “bereavement was a common explanation for madness and despair.”2 In 85 percent of instances this uncontainable grief was for a close family member. Out of these cases, just under 50 percent were for a child, more than for either a spouse

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