Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Hamlet

Who was the real Hamlet?

Did Shakespeare base his Hamlet character on a real person?

If so, who?

Ian McKellen as Hamlet

Who did Shakespeare know who was anything like Hamlet, whose father has been poisoned in a garden, and whose mother marries the murderer, and who sets out on a course of revenge?

Shakespeare knew two men like this.

The first one is Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

Was Essex the real Hamlet?

Essex was one of Shakespeare’s patrons and they knew each other, probably rather well.

Essex’s father was Walter Devereux, a general who died while on military service in Ireland. 

Hamlet’s father appears in full armour, which would suggest Walter Devereux. 

Walter Devereux died of dysentary. However, at the time Walter believed that he had been poisoned by Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, who had had allegedly been having an affair for years with his wife, Lettice.

Was Leicester the real Claudius?

Leicester was Queen Elizabeth’s friend since childhood. As her “favourite,” he was the single most powerful man in England. He was a brave, bold, and fearsome man. And he may have been responsible for killing his former wife, Amy Robsart, in order to marry Queen Elizabeth.

Two years after Walter Devereux’s death, Leicester married the widow, Lettice.

Even though there was no proof of foul play, Essex would have grown up under a shadow of suspicion and fear of Leicester, who is clearly something of a Claudius figure while Essex’s mother is something of a Gertrude figure.

Was Lettice the real Gertrude?

What makes this even more interesting is the fact that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester may have been Essex’s real father.

Leicester had started his affair with Lettice around the time when Essex was conceived.

It is rather odd that Walter Devereux would not name his first born son after himself, which was common at the time. Instead he named the child Robert, after Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester was in fact named as godfather to the boy.

This would seem to be significant for Shakespeare, since Hamlet’s father was also named Hamlet.

One could say that Walter Devereux was close to Leicester, friends perhaps. But what is suspicious is that around the time that Walter died, he and Leicester were having a falling out. 

Was Walter Devereux the real Hamlet's father?

Also, in Walter’s will, he entrusted his family to three men, not including Leicester. Why would he not trust the welfare of his son to Leicester, when Leicester was the boy’s godfather, and Leicester was the most powerful man in England? 

In the time that Shakespeare knew Essex, from about 1588 to 1601, the Court of Queen Elizabeth was divided into two factions, the Essex faction and the Cecil faction. Suffice it to say that the Polonius character is a caricature of William Cecil and his son Robert, who were the two most important and powerful men in Elizabeth’s court.

So in this time, Essex was struggling against the entrenched bureaucratic system of the Cecils, and this struggle is refashioned into the narrative of the Hamlet story which Shakespeare wrote. 

Essex failed to destroy the Cecils, and rashly mounted a coup against Queen Elizabeth’s court, which resulted in his death. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is given a more poetic death, in which he dies, but he takes Polonius, Claudius and unintentionally Gertrude with him.

One of the most important factors as far as establishing Essex as Hamlet is the question of when Shakespeare wrote the Hamlet play. In my research, I find the most plausible date to be in the months after Essex’s failed February 1601 rebellion. It is very likely that Shakespeare wrote this play after his own father’s death, in September 1601.

If we give Shakespeare a few weeks to write this, or re-write it perhaps, we find ourselves in October or November.

Since Essex’s birthday was 10 November, I find it most likely that the world premiere of Shakespeare’s Hamlet play — at least the version that we know today — was on 10 November 1601.

But is there anyone else whose life resembles Hamlet’s?

Yes, it is similar to King James VI of Scotland and I of England.

Was King James the real Hamlet?

King James’s father was Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and his mother of course was Mary, Queen of Scots.

Darnley was famously murdered when the house he was sleeping in exploded from a charge of gunpowder. But his body was found outside the house, in a garden — just like Hamlet’s father.

His body was found outside the house, and there is reason to believe that he was strangled — after the explosion!

He had been sick with syphilis, but at the time there were rumours of his being poisoned.

Was Darnley the real Hamlet's father?
Was Mary the real Gertrude?

The most likely suspect was his mother, working together with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell — and it was suspected that they had been lovers. 

This suspicion was confirmed when Mary ran off with Bothwell and married him. This set off a civil war.

It is possible that the newborn baby James was in fact the son of Bothwell and not Darnley. 

After all, why would Henry Stuart not name his son after himself? It seems to be rather a persuasive possibility that James was named for Mary’s lover, James Hepburn.

Was Bothwell the real Claudius?

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he may have been thinking of King James’s struggle to claim and keep power in Scotland — and stay alive in a court that was well known for murders — and to claim the throne of England from Elizabeth. Not to mention the fact that Elizabeth had executed his own mother, Mary.

Arguably the one man in the entire British Isles who held the greatest grudge was King James, for the death of his mother.

So is it possible that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is Essex? Or King James? Or both?

It is very reasonable to assume that they are both Hamlet. As Shakespeare wrote this play, he was thinking of Essex no doubt, the man for whom he had written many plays — most notably Henry V.

In the 1590s, and particularly in 1601, Shakespeare couldn’t help but think about King James because to think about the Scottish King was to think about who would succeed Queen Elizabeth. And the question of succession was the single greatest topic at that time.

And what is even more fascinating is that Essex and King James had been writing to each other since 1589. Essex had hoped that King James would succeed Elizabeth, and that Essex could serve him in some way — although it is more likely that Essex wanted the crown for himself. 


So, it is possible that Shakespeare knew that Essex and James were in correspondence — and with their shared dark backgrounds, their shared sense of resentment, and their shared ambition to remove the monarch from her throne and start fresh — so he wrote the play for both of them.

King James

But perhaps most convincing of all is to consider this from the point of view of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience. It is almost impossible to believe that this audience would not see the similarities between Hamlet and Essex and James.

If Shakespeare was not trying to model Hamlet after Essex and James, he did a really bad job of it.

But there is one final mystery to Hamlet, and the identity of a real Hamlet. In the play, Shakespeare has Hamlet, who seeks revenge for his father’s murder.

He also has Laertes, who seeks revenge for the murder of his father, Polonius — whom Hamlet killed.

But there is also Fortinbras — who seeks to revenge the death of his father, also named Fortinbras — who was killed in combat by Hamlet’s father, Hamlet.

Finally, Shakespeare also mentions Brutus, famous for his part in assassinating Julius Caesar.

Why would Shakespeare mention Brutus? Does it have anything to do with the fact that Brutus’s father was killed under suspicious circumstances by Emperor Pompey?

So, in a play about a son who seeks revenge for the death of his father, why does Shakespeare have FOUR characters who seek revenge for the death of their fathers?

Did Shakespeare base his Hamlet character on anyone besides Essex and King James? Were there two more men? Three more? Four more?

Who are the other Hamlets?

I think Shakespeare created his Hamlet character for many reasons and many people, not only to remember Essex, and to honor King James, who would become King of England not long after the play had its premiere. There is more to this mystery.

If you wish to explore these other reasons, and see how and why Shakespeare wrote the play, I invite you to read my version of Hamlet.


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