At this time 419 years ago, there is reason to think that William Shakespeare was at home with his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems he had been on tour in Kent at the time, but there is no reason to think that he may not have returned home when hearing that his son was sick.
That was an occurrence that wasn´t that common, the playwright spent most of his time in London where he had his theatre, or on the road, travelling with his company, The Lord Chamberlain´s Men, but on this day, a young boy was brought to his final resting place; Hamnet Shakespeare, the 11 year old son of William and his wife Anne Hathaway.
He was not the only child in the family, he had an older sister, Susannah, born only six months after the marriage between William and the older Anne, but he also had a twin sister, Judith, both of the most likely named after Shakespeare´s friend and neighbour Hamnet Sandler and his wife Judith. Some scholars have suggested that the play Hamlet had lent his name from the son who passed far too early.
It has been pointed out that while for example Ben Johnson wrote heartfelt about the loss of his own son, Shakespeare himself did never really openly introduce the character of his lost child in any of his plays, and it has been suggested that since Shakespeare in reality “abandoned” his family when the twins still were just infants to pursue his career as an actor and playwright in London, only to visit on occasion, his grief may have just been brief, not least since a one out three of children at the time died before the age of 10. The explanation should have been that parents could not really “afford” to invest too much emotion into a child they may never see grown up anyway
But we all grieve differently and in an article from 2004 Stephen Greenblatt points out that while Shakespeare during the four years that followed Hamnet´s death, wrote some of the most light-hearted plays of his production, such as The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like it, he also just the year after Hamnet´s death introduces a grief stricken mother in his play King John which includes a line that could break the heart of anyone with children in their lives; “Grief fills the room up of my absent child”.
One can of course argue that Shakespeare had hardly seen the boy since he was an infant, but as we are collectively so willing to state how little we know of Shakespeare the man, we of course know nothing of his feelings faced with the fact that he was no longer the father of a son.
Greenblatt also suggest that the grief of Ophelia´s brother in Hamlet, the play with the name so closely resembling that of the lost son, is Shakespear´s grief, that when Laertes lament the lack of ceremony at her grave, it is the Bard himself that laments the same at his son´s grave?
Only a few years after Hamnet´s death his grandfather, John Shakespeare, died, a man who is said to have had Catholics leanings in a world that had over the last decades turned more and more protestant, and one suggestion is that the play is his eulogy over both his son and his father
The death of Hamnet and making of Hamlet – Stephen Greenblatt, The New York Review of Books
Shakespeare´s Last Will and Testament
William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life – Samuel Schoenbaum