William Shakespeare was a man of many mysteries. Despite being the most well known author in history, historians know relatively little about Shakespeare’s personal life. There are strewn facts and unusual circumstances that cloud the playwright, from questioning the authorship of his plays and poems to his family life in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, we do know Shakespeare had one son. His name was Hamnet.
Hamnet Shakespeare was born in the early months of 1585 to William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, along with his twin sister, Judith. The twins’ exact birthdate is unknown, but there are records of their baptism on February 2nd, 1585 in the Holy Trinity Church.
After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare left few historical traces until he relocated to London in 1589 to pursue his acting and writing career. This period is often dubbed Shakespeare’s Lost Years as biographers work off hearsay and inconsistent records to piece together the Bard’s early family life in Stratford-upon-Avon. Because of this, little is known about his children and Hamnet especially is shrouded in mystery.
By the time Hamnet was four years old, Shakespeare had already left for London and rarely returned home to visit his family, consumed by his success in the London theatre scene. However in 1596, Hamnet passed away from unknown causes at the age of 11.
Hamnet’s untimely death has long been a topic of discussion, especially in reference to Shakespeare’s works and his transition from comedy to tragedy. Directly following Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare wrote his most famed comedies, included Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, there was a dramatic shift in tone toward the end of the 1590s. In 1599, just three years after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote Henry V and Julius Caesar. Around 1600, Hamlet was published, followed by Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and then the comedy Twelfth Night, where the center plot point revolved around a girl who believes her twin brother has died. There are increasingly similar parallels between Shakespeare’s grief and his plays, but scholars hotly debate the connection, often citing it as a coincidence or referencing other resources as Shakespeare’s inspiration. However, it is is undeniable that traces of Shakespeare’s own grief are laced throughout his works, perhaps as a memorial to his only son, Hamnet.
The lost years of Shakespeare’s life still elude us, but with ArtsEmerson’s upcoming production of Hamnet, perhaps we can imagine what it may have been like to be the son of the most prolific writer of the English language. Perhaps we can also experience connection beyond that.
Tickets for Dead Centre’s Hamnet are available today for all performances, SEP 20-OCT 7 at the Robert J. Orchard Theatre at the Emerson Paramount Center.