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Hamnet / Maggie O'Farrell / RAC 2022-23

Reading Across Campus

Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was an English playwright, poet and actor.  He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon" (or simply "the Bard"). His works include 38 plays and many sonnets among other things. He remains arguably the most influential writer in the English language. Hamnet Shakespeare was his only son. He died aged 11, on August 11, 1596.

No contemporary physical description of Shakespeare is known to exist. The two portraits of him that are the most famous (both of which are posthumous) are the engraving that appears on the title-page of the First Folio published in 1623, and the other is the sculpture that adorns his memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon which dates from before 1623. 

There is no concrete evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a  portrait. However, this image, called the Chandos Portrait, is the only painting of Shakespeare that has a good claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company. The portrait is known as the 'Chandos portrait', after a previous owner, and was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, when it was founded in 1856.

It has not been possible to determine with certainty who painted the portrait, or whether it really depicts Shakespeare. However, the National Portrait Gallery believes that it probably does depict the writer.

To learn more about Shakespeare's life and plays check out the Folger Shakespeare library here: https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare

To learn more about this painting and others associated with Shakespeare see these pages at the National Portrait Gallery: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/2006/searching-for-shakespeare and https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw11574

Hamnet and Hamlet

Hamlet is called Shakespeare’s greatest play—which is to say, the greatest play in the English language—Hamlet’s name is a cognate form of Hamnet. According to Stephen Goldblatt, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day, the Shakespeare twins having ben named after their Stratfordian neighbors Hamnet and Judith Sadler (who ran a bakery and figured in the playwright’s will), who were godparents to Judith and Hamnet. Hamlet is a play that concerns three sets of fathers and sons (Hamlet and King Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius, and Fortinbras and Norway). The last words in O’Farrell’s novel are “Remember me,” the command given by Hamlet Senior’s Ghost to his son. The command may also contain an echo of the boy Amleth’s promise to exact revenge for his father’s murder (like King Hamlet, by his own brother) in the Icelandic poem of that name, translated in the Gesta Danorum, a 13th-century history by Saxo Grammaticus, with the son’s name (possibly) derived from an Icelandic word meaning fool. [If you’re not a fan of Saxo, you might check out director Robert Eggers’ treatment of the saga in his 2022 film Northman, starring Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth and Nicole Kidman as his mother.] Shakespeare may have known Amleth from Saxo, or he may have only known it from François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1572). Both he and Thomas Kyd have been suggested as author of the so-called Ur-Hamlet, an (alleged) earlier stage version of the revenge tragedy. All versions of the story have the prince putting on “an antic disposition” to deceive his uncle.

References to Hamnet in Shakespeare's Plays

It has long been alleged that, because the poet did not dedicate a poem to Hamnet (as Ben Jonson did to his own son, who died aged seven, in “On My First Son”), Shakespeare did not mourn hi son. However, there is evidence that suggests this was not the case. For example, in King John, the play Mark Schwarzberg claims “Shakespeare was most likely writing at the time of Hamnet’s death” (a play which dates from the mid-1590s), Lady Constance, who is lamenting the death of her son, Arthur, exclaims:

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.  (III.4.93–97)

Viola, the protagonist in Twelfth Night, believes her twin brother, Sebastian, may have drowned in the tempest that sank their ship. Another character in the play, Valentine, identified only as a “gentleman,” imagines the scope of her bereavement:

But like a cloistress she will veiled walk  / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine—all this to season /  A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / And lasting in her sad remembrance. (I.I.27-31)

Perhaps the poet had his daughter Judith (Hamnet’s twin) in mind when composing these lines.

In a later play, The Winter’s Tale, the death of a young prince, Mamillius, aged 11, leads his father, the king, to question his sanity and, finally, to reconcile with his wife and daughter.

Critics such as Anthony Holden have alleged that Hamnet is the “fair youth” of the Sonnets. They point to quatrain 3 of Sonnet 33, among others (33 is a multiple of 11):

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.

 

The pun on “sun/son” may be found (or inferred) elsewhere in the Sonnets as well.

Rachel Hullett (see below) finds an echo of King Lear in the novel: Written a decade after King John: According to Hullett, Lear “was composed in 1606, and some of the final words Lear speaks over the dead body of his youngest child Cordelia echo the same rawness and emotional intensity of Constance's final words:

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!