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Monday, August 12, 2013

Shakespeare & Shylock and Hamnet & Hamlet


On 11 August 1596, William Shakespeare buried his only son, Hamnet.



Would Hamnet have looked like his father William Shakespeare, as drawn here at the age of 12?
from Harper's Young People, 1880

Hamnet was 11 years old when he died. The cause of his death is unknown, but it may have been the plague.

When Hamnet died, Shakespeare was left with two daughters. While there is every reason to believe that Shakespeare loved his children equally, the death of a man's only son was especially painful.

Without a son, there was no one to carry on the Shakespeare name. 

This, the matter of his legacy, was not a small matter to Shakespeare. From what we know of his life, he was very ambitious and he wanted to make a name for himself. 

Not long after Hamnet died, Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms at the College of Arms in London. They still have his handwritten application.

The Latin motto that Shakespeare chose for his coat of arms was "Non Sanz Droit." It roughly translates as "not without right." For a man whose family was not considered noble and of the gentle class, and therefore whose rights were limited, it was an important message. 

Shakespeare was declaring that he and his family, who now had the gentle status, had as much rights as anyone else in England. Shakespeare was declaring that he had arrived, and the Shakespeare name would live on.



Coat of Arms Application
The hand-drawn image for the coat of arms

In a sense, perhaps more than anything else in his life, it was this ambition to become a gentleman, and elevate his family, that was the driving force for Shakespeare. It was his reason for being. 

His work in the theatre was just a means to make money and become wealthy enough to make sure that his family would live on forever.

He considered himself to be from a very good family. His great-grandfather, on his father’s side of the family, had served King Henry VII and was rewarded with land to farm in Warwickshire.

Shakespeare’s mother’s family, the Ardens, are one of only three families in England that can trace their lineage back to Anglo-Saxon times, and were one of the most prominent families in Warwickshire. One of her ancestors served in King Henry VII’s court.

Shakespeare would have been raised on such stories of the past glory and importance of his family. It makes sense then that he would want to restore his family’s name as much as possible during his life.

When he had Hamnet, he chose his son’s name with great care.

The name Hamnet was based on a story of Amleth, a boy who was a commoner, who married the daughter to the King of England, who takes revenge for his father on his uncle, and becomes a hero.

Shakespeare obviously related to this story, and in naming his son Hamnet, he was passing on to his son his own ambitious plans for becoming a noble family once again.

The name Hamnet is interchangeable with the name Hamlet.

Why then did Shakespeare write a play called Hamlet, in which almost everyone dies, including Prince Hamlet himself?

I explore this question in my version of Hamlet. But to give you an idea, I think Shakespeare wrote more than one version of the play.

In the earlier versions, the play would have not been a tragedy, and Prince Hamlet may not have died. He may have survived, as in the heroic story of Amleth, which served as the basis for Shakespeare’s play.

These early heroic versions of Shakespeare’s play would have been written before Hamnet died. The later versions, written after Hamnet died, would have become more tragic, and would have included Prince Hamlet’s death.

It is very sad then to imagine that Shakespeare, so full of hope and dreams for his future and the future of his family, just becoming the greatest playwright in London by 1596, would suddenly lose the future of his family and lose the reason for those hopes and dreams.

When I wrote my version of The Merchant of Venice, I discovered that it would have been written right after Hamnet’s death. It may have been written because of his death.

It has been written that Shylock may have been a representation of Shakespeare himself. In the play, Shylock’s only child, his daughter Jessica, has run away and left him. She has also taken all of the family’s wealth.

Shylock’s desperation, and his anger, come from the fact that his daughter has left him. He cries out “My daughter! My ducats!” because everything that is valuable to him is gone.



English actor Charles Macklin as Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at Covent Garden, London, 1767-68, by Johann Zoffany

When Shakespeare lost Hamnet, it was arguably the most desperate and saddest time of his life. What was most valuable to him was gone.

When we consider this, it is even more remarkable that Shakespeare not only survived this tragedy, but that he channeled it into his writing, and these plays have become some of the greatest works of art in human history.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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