William Shakespeare

Tragedies

Two years after the birth of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, Anne Hathaway gave birth to twins. William and Anne named the twins Hamnet and Judith, most likely after a couple they were friends with in Stratford. Eleven years later, in 1596, Hamnet Shakespeare died. Shakespeare’s father John died a few years later, in 1601. Although we have no record of the effect these deaths had on Shakespeare, there is a significant change in his writing during these years. Up to this point, Shakespeare had been famous as a writer of histories and comedies. He had written only two tragedies. From 1599 to 1606, however, Shakespeare produced a series of tragedies, including all the tragic plays for which he is most famous today. Grief and loss emerge as major themes. Hamlet (written around 1600) dwells on a son’s grief for his father. King Lear (around 1605) culminates in Lear’s ferocious, half-mad grief for his daughter. Macbeth (around 1606) hinges on the murder of another character’s children by the childless Macbeth.

Shakespeare continued to write comedies during this period as well, but even they are colored by grief. In Twelfth Night (written around 1601) a twin sister mourns her brother. Measure for Measure (1604) is about a young woman’s attempts to spare her brother the death penalty. Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well (around 1601) and Troilus and Cressida (1602), are so bleak in tone that some readers have argued they aren’t really comedies at all, and prefer to call them “problem plays”. In his grief, Shakespeare may have come to feel bitter about his wealth and success. Timon of Athens (1605) and Coriolanus (1607) are both about rich and powerful characters who turn their backs on society and become embittered exiles.