In Stratford-on-Avon, in 1584, William Shakespeare (20) and his wife Ann (26) had twins, a girl Judith and a boy Hamnet. The twins were named after neighbors and life-long friends of the Shakespeare family, Judith and Hamnet Sadler.
The Shakespeares had been married for two years and already had one child, Susanna, born a few months after their wedding.
William must have had some kind of a job in Stratford. He had a family to support and his father John, a glover, was in debt and tied up in litigation at the local court and the courts in Westminster. It was probably because of John’s situation that William had left school in 1577, at 13 years of age. Stratford was a free school so tuition wouldn’t have been a problem, but William was probably needed, in John’s shop at first maybe, but ultimately as a source of outside income.
William spent the rest of his life very deliberately building the family finances back up to where they were when he was a child — when John was a major property owner and businessman, for a time the town’s bailiff.
No one knows what William did for a living. He could’ve started as an actor back in Stratford, with one of the touring companies. Three or four such companies went through town every year. His schooling would’ve given him a pretty good training in penmanship and Latin, accomplishments that might lead to a job as a law clerk. There was a court in Stratford, one in which John was often present on one charge or another. Or William would be qualified to work as a teacher, not in grammar school but in kindergarten where all children went for a year to learn the alphabet, penmanship, and proper pronunciation. Later, one of William’s fellow actors in London recalled William telling him that he worked as an “abecedarius” in the countryside around Stratford.
William and his family lived with William’s parents, who stayed — pending various court decisions — in possession of the house even though they’d lost everything else. And they had lost it all. In 1586, the local authorities were ordered to seize John’s goods, and reported back to the court that there were no goods left to be seized.
There’s no record of any money coming from Anne’s side of the family, the Hathaway’s. She brought to the marriage an inheritance of six pounds from the recent death of her father. It was a healthy inheritance, a half-year’s wage for a teacher, but that seems to have been the end of it.
A year after the twins were born, in 1585, William left Stratford. Some scholars think that he could have gravitated to Westminster, the London palace of the Queen, and the location of the courts and the Inns of Court where young gentlemen learned law and languages and practiced poetry, acting and music in preparation for working as lawyers or courtiers. Then, Westminster was about a mile west of the city. The printers were there too, with their stalls of books.
The scholars specify Westminster because William became an actor and writer, and Westminster was a literary center. They also figure that William would have been interested in monitoring one of his father’s cases of which he himself was a part as John’s heir. It concerned his inheritance from his mother’s, Mary Arden’s, side of the family. This case ran through the courts at Westminster (unsuccessfully) through the first three or four years of William’s stay in London.
Also, John had a lawyer in Westminster, John Harborne, who’d worked for him before and become a friend and who might’ve provided or found William employment as a law clerk. Another contact was Richard Field, a school friend of William’s who came to London before William to apprentice as a printer and, when his master died, married the master’s widow, becoming the owner of a prosperous print shop. Later, in 1593, he published William’s first poems.
By 1593, William emerges in the records as an actor, poet and playwright. He was attacked in a pamphlet that year for bombastic acting and plagiarism. In April of that year Field published Venus and Adonis. The poem was a great success. It was reprinted immediately and gained William some reward from the dedicatee, the Earle of Southampton. We know there was a reward because William produced another long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, a year later, also dedicated to Southampton.
By 1595, records show that William was involved in the business end of theatre. Actors were of higher status than playwrights, forming companies, building theatres, and hiring writers. The success at the time of his history cycle Henry VI, in three parts, might’ve helped him into the business.
He must have been making a significant amount of money. In October 1596 he purchased a coat of arms for his father, something his father had wanted to do years earlier. John and William could now call themselves “gentlemen.” The process of rebuilding the family fortunes was officially under way. In May 1597 William purchased “New Place,” one of the largest homes in Stratford, and rented it out. It was the home to which he would retire, by which time he was the biggest property owner in Stratford.
But just before the coat of arms and the purchase of New Place, in August 1595, Hamnet died of bubonic plague. William’s reaction to the death of his son is said to be reflected in the plays, King John (1595-6), Twelfth Night (1600 – 1) and Hamlet (1601).
Finding William himself in the plays is tricky business, somewhat like finding God’s advice in the Bible. No one can agree. Everyone is certain that her/his interpretation is right. William seemed to have an uncanny ability to tie his fictional situations and characters to common human emotions and events. This is why so many people (Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud and Walt Whitman) think Shakespeare couldn’t have been the man pictured in the First Folio. That man, as the great critic Northrop Frye put it facetiously, is “clearly an idiot.” Would the greatest writer in English get a woman much older than him pregnant and marry her not long before the baby was born? Would he put himself in a situation where he had a sizeable family to support by age 20? Would he retire from writing plays at the height of his powers and go into real estate and malt production in Stratford? Or was he more likely the mere secretary of someone more substantial, someone with a wider range of experience or better education, like Francis Bacon, the Earle of Oxford or Sir Walter Raleigh?
Anyway, in King John the widowed Queen Constance, on losing her son Arthur, delivers a mighty rant that some critics think represents an outpouring of grief for Hamnet. I don’t find the rant very convincing. In Hamlet, a father haunts a son who has been a disappointment, possibly a reversal of the situation between Hamnet and William, showing William’s guilt about not being a good enough (an absentee) father. This makes some sense, but the real conflict actually seems to be between Hamlet and his mother.
To me it’s Twelfth Night, written about five years after Hamnet’s death, that is more seriously an attempt by William to express his feelings about his son. Now those feelings are more subdued and William seems concerned only to memorialize Hamnet.
The play begins with a character describing a noble lady Olivia, who has lost her father and then immediately her brother. She has gone into isolation — isolation from, in particular, men who want to marry her (she is a great beauty, and well off):
The element itself, till seven years heat, Shall not behold her face in ample view But like a cloistress she will veiled walk And water once a day her chamber round With eye-offending brine: all this to season A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh And lasting in her sad remembrance.
Here I think William is expressing a whole family’s emotion, but particularly the sisters’, and maybe most particularly the twin sister’s, Judith’s. For immediately in the story a twin sister turns up, Viola, who has just been saved from drowning and who assumes, though she is given some hope that her assumption is not true, that her brother Sebastian has drowned.
When she is told by the sea captain who has rescued her that her ship went down off the coast of Illyria, she replies, “and what should I do in Illyria?/My brother he is in Elysium.”
Viola, being of noble birth, decides at first to serve Olivia, with whom she sympathizes as one who has lost a brother. Told that Olivia is in isolation, particularly in isolation from the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, who is courting her, she decides to serve Orsino. She will disguise herself as a man and pass herself off as a eunuch (major plot flaw here, as the Duke later suspects her of taking Olivia away from him).
She’s immediately in love with the Duke and, sent by him to court Olivia, immediately becomes the object of Olivia’s affections. It seems that Shakespeare imagined his twins (Judith was 16 at the time the play was written) as irresistibly attractive.
Also he imagined them as entirely devoted to one another, as perhaps they were. Sebastian as it turns out has been rescued by a man named Antonio, and says to him that his father died recently, adding, “He left behind him myself and a sister, both born in an hour. If the heavens had been pleased, would we had so ended! For some hour before you took me from the breach, my sister drowned.” Note, as with Olivia the father is out of the picture. When Antonio asks about the sister, Sebastian says, “she bore a mind that envy could not but call fair.”
Back to Viola, who is courting both Olivia and the Duke and being courted by Olivia. Orsino asks her an interesting question. She’s just told him, “My father had a daughter loved a man/As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman/I should your lordship.” He asks, “But died thy sister of her love, my boy?” She replies, “I’m all the daughters of my father’s house/And all the brothers too, and yet I know not.” Here she’s saying that as a twin she’s both son and daughter now that her brother’s dead. She says later, “I my brother know, yet living in my glass.” And she’s saying that she doesn’t really know yet if he’s dead or whether or not she’ll die of love of Orsino.
But it all works out happily, Sebastian turning up just in time to rescue his sister from both Olivia and the Duke. He rescues her too from the comic characters, who realize that the disguised Viola is small and sort of feminine for a guy and are trying to beat her up. Unfortunately for them they find and attack Sebastian instead of Viola.
So Sebastian marries Olivia and Viola gets the Duke.
The play is a perfect memorial for Hamnet and a tribute to him and his sister Judith. It might have been a great comfort for William and the rest of the family too. It brings Hamnet back to them all, and buries the guilt that William might have been feeling as an absentee father who didn’t get a chance to provide his son the social status and good life that he wanted for him.
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[John Harris’s Poet and Son is a series-in-progress about poets and their male offspring.]