If The Guardian and around 4000 other Google hits are to be believed, the inspiration for Ophelia’s death in Hamlet has been found: a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who drowned in a pond while picking marigolds in 1569, five years after Shakespeare’s birth, in a Worcestershire village a day’s ride from Stratford.
The parallels between the girl and the character are slight — neither age nor flowers match, the girl died in a pond, Ophelia in a brook, the girl was, as far as the coroner knew, mentally stable, and did not sink to her death while singing “snatches of old tunes” — but the relative proximity of Jane’s village to Shakespeare’s town and, more significantly, the possibility that they may have been relatives (given the vagaries of early modern orthography) makes the discovery of the coroner’s inquest a tantalizing story. Apparently. No-one seems to have had the wits to spell out what an intriguing expansion of the reading of Hamlet as a Shakespearean family drama this discovery allows: not only is the Dane inspired by the death of William’s son Hamnet, now the Dane’s lover can also be traced to William’s Worcestershire cousin. Hamlet is really about death in the Shakespeare family — a negative genealogy of sorts.
I don’t mean to deny that the story offers fodder for a footnote or two in future editions of the play. I even agree with Emma Smith’s point that it offers “a good reminder that while Shakespeare’s plays draw on well-attested literary sources, they also often have roots in gossip, the mundane, and the domestic detail of everyday life.”
But I do wonder why the find is so massively newsworthy. As Steven Gunn, the historian who dug up the document, says, the seeming link “might be just a coincidence.” In fact, the coroner’s report was found not as a result of research into Shakespeare’s life, but in the course of a thorough study of Tudor investigations of accidental deaths — a social history project that has already yielded results rather more interesting and important than the discovery of a possible source for a plot point in a play. Just two tidbits reported by the Guardian in the depths of the article: “relatively few people died in house fires because most lived in single-storey homes and could easily escape.” And, more surreally, “one man avoided mishap from a toppling maypole but it knocked a stone out of Coventry’s city wall and that fell on his head and did kill him.” Those things seem tangible, and significant, and even darkly amusing. The Ophelia link strikes me as a little contrived and ultimately, frankly, boring. And I make my living caring about Shakespeare.
Never mind that the connection between young Jane and Ophelia is haphazard at best; what exactly can we learn from this “discovery?” How does it create opportunities for new readings of Hamlet? How does it fill a gap in our knowledge, let alone our understanding? Isn’t it, as almost always, another case where (if we assume the connection to be real) Shakespeare’s alterations and modifications are far more interesting than his source? Ultimately, is our comprehension of Ophelia’s death scene (or rather, Gertrude’s complicated and confusing narrative of the scene, since Ophelia dies off-stage) enriched at all by the knowledge that the scene was inspired by a real-life death, especially given that the version in the play is in almost all details unlike that real-life event? As I said, it might be worth a footnote, but beyond that — what’s the point?
What I didn’t find boring was the tone of the coroner’s report, which concludes with a marvellous combination of wistfulness and lawyerly logic: “And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of the death of the aforesaid Jane; and they are worth nothing.” Now that’s a line worth writing about.
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