Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Notes For August 11th, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On August 11th, 1596, the legendary playwright and poet William Shakespeare and his wife Anne buried their only son, Hamnet, who died of unknown causes at the age of eleven. In 16th century England, approximately one-third of children didn't survive past the age of ten, mostly due to illness. Hamnet Shakespeare was named after his father's close friend, a baker named Hamlet Sadler. He had a twin sister, Juliet, who was named after Sadler's wife. The twins had an older sister - the Shakespeares' first child, Susanna.

The names Hamnet and Hamlet are interchangeable and have various spellings. On William Shakespeare's will, Hamlet Sadler's first name is spelled Hamlett.

For many years, Shakespearean scholars and critics have theorized about the effect of Hamnet Shakespeare's death on his father's writings, and his connection to the play that bears a variation of his name. The Danish prince in William Shakespeare's greatest play was most likely based on Amleth, a character in the ancient Scandinavian folktale Vita Amlethi, as retold by the famous 12th century Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus. Vita Amlethi is very similar to Shakespeare's play.

While it's impossible to prove that Shakespeare's plays may have differed greatly had his son survived, (or that some may not have been written at all) grief is a recurring theme in Shakespeare's plays. In the tragedy The Life and Death of King John, (aka King John for short) an emissary of the French King Philip arrives with a demand that King John abdicate his throne to Arthur, the Duke of England, (King John's nephew) whom King Philip believes to be rightful King of England. If King John refuses to abdicate, the French will declare war. Later in the play, Arthur is killed after falling from a castle wall. In Act III, Scene IV, Arthur's mother Constance elaborates on her grief:

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;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.—
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure!

The great novelist James Joyce would mention Hamnet Shakespeare in his legendary novel Ulysses, in a scene where Stephen Dedalus sits in the National Library and imagines William Shakespeare himself playing the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father in a performance of his play. Dedalus speculates that Shakespeare wrote the play so that his son Hamnet would live forever.

Quote Of The Day

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind." - William Shakespeare

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a clip of Kevin Kline in a rare performance of Hamlet. The clip features Act III, Scene I, with Kline performing Hamlet's famous soliloquy. Enjoy!

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