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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9 Responses to The Power of the Bard: Jane Shaxspere and Ophelia

  1. […] still use when talking about trimming hedges? It is a fascinating factoid, to be sure (much like Jane Shaxspere), but what does it do? Does it change the character of Hamlet into a prince with an unhealthy […]

  2. Holger Syme says:

    Oh, I agree that the story isn’t in the same league as Schama’s comments, which is why I didn’t think it deserved a place in the nascent “People Being Stupid About Shakespeare” series. And I am grateful to have learned all those other, actually interesting factoids!

    The one other thing I’d say is that although most art in some way reworks prior events or texts or objects, knowing those sources doesn’t determine (or even delimit) the meaning or range of meanings of the new work. So knowing about this child’s death may illuminate in a very small way how Shakespeare worked, and it may tell us something about his biography and his personal preoccupations, but it doesn’t tell us anything about Hamlet unless you want to read the play as a reflection of the playwright’s biography. (Which I don’t really.)

  3. Rols says:

    That wasn’t all supposed to be in shouty bold, obviously. Bloody HTML.

  4. Rols says:

    Actually, we’re mostly in agreement as both of us think it’s worthy of the footnote and little more. Having said which:

    I question the premise that this event would have made a “huge impression” on the young Shakespeare. Child deaths were much, much more common in the 16th century than now, and an accident like this, while sad, would have been far less of a traumatic and shocking event than now.

    Completely disagree with that, based on my acquaintance with five year olds, although on reflection I’d better have written just “impression” without the “huge”. I’d say that it’s exactly the kind of unusual death that would get remembered – it’s not exactly yet another boring premature “ague” mortality in the smallpox / pneumonia / measles line – and the flower-picking detail makes it horribly poignant.

    most literary production is in some way a transformation of prior events and works. What exactly can we learn specifically from this one…?

    Not much, I admit, but that’s no reason to dismiss it or file it alongside Schama’s idiocy. And: if “most literary production is in some way a transformation of prior events and works” then surely as much knowledge of “prior events and works” as possible is desirable in “reading those writings and making sense of them”?

    And look on the bright side: if it hadn’t been for the Shakespeare connection, the press would never have covered the discovery of other (to you) more interesting factoids about Tudor accidental deaths. So it’s all good.

  5. Holger Syme says:

    Hi Rols —

    couple of things. Whether the family connection is likely or not, I question the premise that this event would have made a “huge impression” on the young Shakespeare. Child deaths were much, much more common in the 16th century than now, and an accident like this, while sad, would have been far less of a traumatic and shocking event than now.

    Beyond that, I frankly don’t understand what the “insight” would be. Surely no one doubts that all writers draw on real-life events and other texts in producing their own works. So yes, most literary production is in some way a transformation of prior events and works. What exactly can we learn specifically from this one — even if we had a letter from Shakespeare telling us that he had Ophelia die by drowning because he remembered Jane Shaxspere’s death?

    And finally, while it may be fun to speculate about Shakespeare’s biography and its influence on his writing, I’m more interested in reading those writings and making sense of them. And knowing (if we did know) the real-life model for the drowned Ophelia provides no useful context for understanding or interpreting _Hamlet_ as far as I can see, unless one wants to read the play in order to learn something about the author (always a fraught endeavour, but particularly so in the case of drama).

  6. Rols says:

    It seems of great interest to me. If poor young Jane was his cousin (or kin of some kind), which seems likely enough, the story of her death (either reported at the time or fed into family myth by repetition, as these things tend to be) would have made a huge impression on the young Will.

    I’d say it gives quite an interesting insight into a possible creative process: the recall of a private childhood event, and its transformation and re-contextualising into something richer and stranger for an audience.

    Of course, it might be nothing: no connection between Jane and Will, so no connection between Jane and Ophelia. But one of the fun things about watching Shakespeare (or anyone) in the post-Empson era (or as Bate would have it, the quantum era) is that you can bear both possibilities in mind without having to decide which is right or wrong.

    Side note: a pity this wasn’t unearthed in the 1880s. What would Joyce have made of it? Scylla and Charybdis would have been half as long again and Stephen might never have made it to the pub.

  7. Joanne says:

    This could easily be titled “People being stupid about Shakespeare II”. But the quotidian tragedy is sad: little children are so easily swept away, by ponds, by marigolds or by coroners’ reports.

  8. Holger Syme says:

    I was thinking more about the idea that the flowers, rather than the water or Jane’s intention to pick the flowers, were the cause of death, but yes, the deodand angle is equally fascinating: the crown didn’t care about marigolds. You can’t put a price on a flower.

  9. Piers says:

    “And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of the death of the aforesaid Jane; and they are worth nothing”–I’m always excited to talk about deodands…

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