Friday, August 11, 2017

The Death of Shakespeare's son

He opened the letter... his son was ill, time was short, return home now. The master of words went silent. When we lose a child we find ourselves lost too. We are suddenly not the person we were. On August 11th, 1596, the man known everywhere for his wit, his wisdom, & his insight, found himself speechless. William Shakespeare's son died. Hamnet was 11 yrs old, and a twin. William had only been around him a few times most likely, on vacations home from London where he lived and worked. One might think his lack of words were due to this lack of familiarity, but a few tiny hints in plays he wrote after his son died makes me believe otherwise.

William lived in a time when women were underrated, and a boy was the heir. William had risen in life far above the station of his father, with money and contacts that he would need to leave to a son. He was also a man who mastered the art of expressing deeply interwoven emotions. His characters suffered great loss, enjoyed great success, and mastered great manipulations, but the man who created all those things was silent on the subject of the death of his son.

As a twice bereaved mom, I know first hand that everyone deals with their loss differently. I have seen the most social people dig themselves a hole to crawl into and go silent, and I have seen the most introverted spirits suddenly explode with demands for socialization. I believe William Shakespeare was among the former group. When you spend your life imagining tragedy and loss, you give countless hours to creating the experience that moves everyone who sees it, there must be that moment when art becomes life, and it is nothing like what you imagined. Everything he thought would be, was wrong. I'm amazed he ever picked up another pen.

But he did. He wrote his best work after that loss. His comedies were deeper, with hidden messages that have very serious tones, sarcasm, and an ability to show the world how silly humanity can be. His tragedies were suddenly very real, discovering the powerful ability to reach inward to the character's soul, and simply let the audience eavesdrop on their thoughts.

In the play King John, written just after the death of Hamnet, in 1596, he writes in the character of a grieving mother who speaks the words the author could not: "I am not mad; I would to God I were".

She goes on to say:

"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)

We can not possibly know (yet) the exact dates that he wrote his plays, and we can certainly argue the point that his plays, and his writing skills, were improving all the time. and the death of his son had no impact on that. That said, the idea that the death of his son stimulated a higher level of understanding, therefore deeper characters and story dynamics, can also be made. We literally have nothing in his words as a bereaved father, we only have the words he wrote into fictional characters in fictional situations of child loss. Even those are very few, but all those references written after the loss of his son are consistent with our own knowledge as bereaved parents, while those references written in his plays before the death of his son, like in Romeo and Juliet, are more like what we hear from those who have not faced the reality of child loss. 

The loss of his son left him silent... except in his plays. His play, Hamlet, is a perfect example of the words William Shakespeare was missing in his own life:
"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" 


The irony of this man's life, a life of words and expression, masterfully written with advanced thinking for his time, is also the life of the deepest silent solitude when it comes to his private story.  Perhaps, as grieving parents, we might find solace in the example Shakespeare provided as a man who found an outlet for his grief, behind a mask for safety, but always in public. He continued to have a very successful life, deeply motivated by the man he had become after the loss of his son.

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