5 – Shakespeare suffered great personal upheaval, which inspired some of his greatest tragedies and poetry
“Been not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Malvolio in Twelfth Night
The great hole in the life of Shakespeare, at the heart of the artistic analysis of much of his work, lies in the death of his son Hamnet. That Hamnet died was not particularly unusual: children not making it as far as adulthood was common, with an estimated third of all births dying before the age of 10, and indeed William himself had been preceded by two sisters that died in infancy. Neither was Hamnet’s death from any great unknown source, as he is thought to have contracted the bubonic plague and passed away in 1596 at the age of 11. The plague was a constant scourge, ravaging Europe from the middle of the 14th century until well into the 19th century, and it would periodically strike small towns like Stratford.
The emotional impact of Hamnet’s death on his father has been debated throughout the centuries. It is likely that Shakespeare was away when his son died and probably did not even heard about it until Hamnet had already been buried: he was away acting in Kent at the time that the death was recorded. The impact that it had on his work is palpable. From his arrival in London in the early 1590s, Shakespeare had proved himself a master of comedy – his earliest performed works were The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew – and history, but by 1597, his work takes a noticeably darker turn. It is at this period that we see the first of the great tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, and it is in the later periods of his career that the likes of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear appear.
The extent to which the deep tragedy of his later work is linked to the real tragedy of Shakespeare’s life is not known, but it is obvious that the wider trend towards sadness is there in the writing. Before 1596, Shakespeare was young, up and coming, successful and had a young family back home; after the death of his only son, he was aging (by the standards of 1596, the 32-year-old Shakespeare would have been considered old) and lacking a male heir. He might well have wondered if it all had been worth it.
The themes are there to be picked out. Hamlet is often seen as the closest play to Shakespeare’s own son: the characters’ name is, of course, very similar, while the themes of father/son relations are also easy to bring together. The Twelfth Night revolves around the experiences of a girl whose twin brother dies – Hamnet, remember, was a twin to Judith – and there are scenes in King John, Julius Caesar and The Tempest that refer to the guilt of fathers over their dead sons.
It was about this time that Shakespeare’s sonnets seem to reveal problems in his personal life. The death of his son is heavily alluded to, while his fidelity to his wife is questioned by the appearance of the famed “Dark Lady” in his poetry, as well as the homoerotic themes that we will discuss in the next section. The identities of those to whom he addresses his sonnets are not known: many have suggested that the “Fair Youth”, the male subject of 126 of the sonnets, might well have been Henry Wriothesley, his patron and alleged lover, while the “Dark Lady” has provoked speculation almost since the publication of the poems in 1609. Some claim her to be Emilia Lanier, a woman of Italian descent who was the mistress of one of the actors with whom Shakespeare performed and a poet in her own right, while others have alleged that a black brothel owner named Black Luce or Aline Florio, the wife of an Italian translator, might have been the subject of Shakespeare’s affections.
This historical gossip is one thing, and we can discuss it further in the next section. For while the Dark Lady has captivated across the centuries, recent scholars of Shakespeare have questioned his personal life even further: with many thinking that The Bard might, in fact, have been bisexual.