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Read Between the Lines: Personal References in Shakespeare’s Own Plays

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. F.I.N.D. 2017 Festival Internationale Neue Dramatik

William Shakespeare is known around the world as a beyond-legendary poet, playwright, actor and is commonly cited as one of the greatest writers in the English language. His works have been translated into every major language and his plays are staged thousands of times every year. While his reputation precedes him, we know very little about Shakespeare’s role as a father or husband.



Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 when he was only 18 and she was 26. Six months later Anne gave birth to their daughter Susanna; soon after in 1585 came twins: Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare’s only son—Hamnet—died at the age of 11 in 1596. There is little to no documentation or evidence of the kind of father Shakespeare was, especially since he spent much of his children’s lives in London pursuing his theatre career. However, there are some fascinating parallels between Shakespeare’s personal life and his plays. While scholars often debate the connections between the two, it is hard to deny the hints of his own life within his work. Here are a few instances where the lines between reality and fiction are blurred.

Hamlet and Hamnet

Perhaps the most obvious of all the connections, the title character of Hamlet is thought by some scholars to be in some way about Hamnet, his son. While this connection has been hotly debated, art and livelihood seem to meld together in the details of the play. Written in 1601 just a few years after the deaths of both his father and son, Hamlet provides an interesting crossroads between Shakespeare the artist and Shakespeare the family man. In Hamlet, you could argue that all of these personal tragedies dovetail into the titular character reflecting all three real life figures: Shakespeare, his father, and his son. In Hamlet’s grief for his recently deceased father we can see shades of the bard himself, in the mental stress caused by the absence of Hamlet’s dad we can also see shades of Hamnet’s real-life longing for his absent father. You can read more about Hamnet here and more about the history of Hamlet here.

Twins in Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare had twins, Judith and Hamnet, who are thought to be the inspiration for the twins in both The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. The Comedy of Errors was one of Shakespeare’s early plays and is about two sets of identical twins who were separated at birth. Twelfth Night was written around 1601 and revolves around twins Sebastian and Viola who were separated in a shipwreck. Furthermore, Viola believes her twin brother to be dead for the majority of the play, resembling perhaps Judith’s longing for her brother, Hamnet, after his passing and exhibits a rewriting of history where Hamnet’s death did not actually occur. 

Constance in King John

King John was thought to be written in 1596, the same year that Hamnet died. One character in particular, Constance, is often referred to by scholars as a representation of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. In the play, Constance is a mother who enters an intense period of grief when her son, Arthur, is captured; these lines in particular are thought to reflect Shakespeare’s and Anne’s devastation after losing Hamnet. “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words, Remembers me of his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.”

And yet, when we look to Shakespeare’s own words on the subject or art vs reality, fittingly, he seems to support both the idea that his plays can be looked at as pure imagination or a reflection of real life, or perhaps most accurately, as some kind of brilliant combination of both:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts. 

Hamnet presented by the Dead Centre portrays the imagined life of the eleven year old Hamnet who never knew his father. Now, instead of Shakespeare leaving behind clues from his own life, we have the opportunity for to hear his son present his own perspective of what it means to live in the shadows of greatness.

Join us SEPT 20 – OCT 7 at the Robert J. Orchard Theatre in the Emerson Paramount Center for a story of Shakespearean proportions and multimedia wonder.

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