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What’s in An Epitaph?

There is a common expression coined first by Oscar Wilde, among artists of this world that "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.” However, the direct opposite of this statement can be said, according to the life of the most influential writer of the English language William Shakespeare. Art [most certainly does] imitates life far more than life imitates art. An individual who was able to single-handedly breathe so much life and enjoyment into the cultural sphere of the world making it what it is today; experienced an excessive amount of death throughout his lifetime. For instance, two of Shakespeare’s younger brothers named Richard and Edmund died before his death on April 23, 1616. Alongside that, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet who was a fraternal twin died at the age of eleven in the year 1596, just to name a few, (Greenblatt 45-46).

All of this being said one can help but infer some interesting connections between the life the writer and some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters found within his artistic work such as Richard of Richard III, Edmund of King Lear, Prince Hamlet of Hamlet and Viola of Twelfth Night. Famously in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet poses the question, “what's in a name?” While it may seem at first to be a mere coincidence that at least four of Shakespeare’s central characters within his vast body of work happen to either bare the names of or have a biological connection to a deceased family member of the Shakespeare, himself; upon further examination, it is possible that this may not be the case. Instead, perhaps Shakespeare conceived of the characters in an attempt to immortalize in some fictionalized representation those of whom in his life that were departed from him too soon. Therefore, through the writing of these particular creative works William Shakespeare exemplifies a method or process for dealing with death and grief as he, himself pours the broken pieces of his aching heart onto the page through inkwell and feather pen.

In the History of Richard III, Shakespeare presents his audience with Richard, a seemingly middle-aged man, who only after becoming King of England at the end of the play is fated to die on the battlefield the following day. Although there is little known of Shakespeare’s brother Richard’s death, it doesn’t seem like a happens stance that these two individuals one fictional, one real shares the same name even if the play itself is said to have been written to honor King Richard, “the Lion Heart’s” rise to power. Likewise, it cannot just go unnoticed that the name of the Prince of Demark, Hamlet, and the name of Shakespeare’s dead son look and sound strikingly similar. Furthermore, the fact that Edmund of King Lear shares the exact name of Shakespeare’s youngest and last brother. Throughout each of these plays, Shakespeare presents both a different representation of death and as a direct result, what it means to grieve. In Richard III Shakespeare depicts grief as being a result of the rise and fall of power. Richard as a character spends the direction of his play plotting and scheming to obtain the throne (his rise to power), however, once he has achieved his deepest wish, his strength slowly begins to run away from him and leads to not only his fall from power but also his death.

According to E.A.J Honigmann, “King Lear is perhaps Shakespeare’s most ‘self-centered play, where he reveals most completely what manner of man he was. I am not suggesting that King Lear offers us a self-portrait, only that Shakespeare would foresee, even before he put pen to paper, that the King Lear story opened emotional territories that he had, so far, avoided,” (711). With this in mind, it would make sense that Shakespeare, within Lear demonstrates one of the deepest outcries of grief coming in second only to Hamlet. Within King Lear, the theme of death and loss coupled with grief is seen over and over again, on repeat in some different ways. However, the emotion is predominantly represented by the two characters of Lear and Gloucester. Lear throughout the play actively grieves the loss of his former identity and the love of his daughters. While Glouster mourns the loss of the “perfected” relationship that used to exist between himself and his two estranged sons. Here within the pages of King Lear, Shakespeare seems to be asking the questions of a parent or a family member who has woken up one day to find that the most important people in their life are no longer walking down the road beside them. In fact, Shakespeare chooses to paint two very different pictures of grief within this one written work. Lear, throughout the show, is incredibly expressive and responsive to the misery that he experiences. However, Glouster by the end of the play is almost nonresponsive to the pain he feels within his posture of grief. In the end, though, King Lear ends with the resounding echoes of the mourning of two fathers who were never able to move beyond their loss because no one feels the loss more profound than a once loving father.

The truth is however, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most significant and most profound statement of grief. It could be entirely possible that one of Shakespeare’s underlying motivations for writing Hamlet was to in some way honor his deceased son Hamet who had died a few years before the play’s first performance which took place in 1609. Through the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare paints a picture of grief that is in many respects horrific and catastrophic. However, there is still an element of real human rawness that comes through making the experience beautiful to behold. This display of raw human emotions is first demonstrated through Hamlet’s opening lines delivered in response to his father’s funeral and then carried on throughout the rest of the subsequent acts of the play.

“Though Hamlet's use of the conventional Elizabethan forms of mourning expresses his hostility to an unfeeling court, he is at the same time speaking deeply of an experience which everyone who has lost someone close to him must recognize. He is speaking of the early stages of grief, of its shock, of its inner and still hidden sense of loss, and trying to describe what is not fully describable-the inexpressible wound whose immediate consequence is the dislocation, if not transvaluation, of our common perceptions and feelings and attachments to life. It is no accident that this speech sets in motion Hamlet's preoccupation with seeming and being, including the whole train of images of acting which is crystallized in the play within the play. The peculiar centripetal pull of anger and sorrow which the speech depicts remains as the central under-current of that preoccupation, most notably in Hamlet's later soliloquy about the player's imitation of Hecuba's grief,” (Kirsch 19).

Interestingly, within Twelfth Night Shakespeare seems to plant another autobiographical note that points to his son Hamet as he constructs a comedy centered around a pair of fraternal twins where the brother is presumed to be dead by his sister. As it so happens, Hamet had a twin sister by the name of Judith; and, as has been the case in every Shakespeare play the act of mourning is played out differently by Viola. The common trope of cross-dressing women is employed in this text for many reasons including as some would suggest grief. “Viola's gender switch visually makes her a fit mourner for Sebastian, too; throughout most of the Tudor period, chief mourners at heraldic funerals had to be the same sex as the deceased,” (Penuel 78). Therefore Viola, in a way becomes one with her brother and in doing so temporarily making her male which would allow her to fully participate in every aspect of the mourning process, that in some ways would have been limited to the female sex during the Elizabethan period. However, the conclusion to Twelfth Night is inherently different because it is a Shakespearean comedy that ends with a marriage rather than death which is the case with the tragedies of Shakespeare.

Through the life of Shakespeare, it becomes clear that the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life,” can be expressed both ways equally. Life does imitate art but art also equally imitates life at the same time. This is seen through how Shakespeare as a writer used autobiographical elements of his own life to influence the lives of his various fictional characters. In doing so, Shakespeare allows the vast amount of loss and grief he has experienced throughout his life to helping shape his creative narrative which is meant to make a comment about overall society. Therefore, through tragedies like Richard IIIand King Lear Shakespeare exemplifies pain through the loss of power and real fatherhood. Whereas in Hamlet and Twelfth Night the Playwright exemplifies grief through the horrific actions of Hamlet and the more understated but still dramatic transformation of Viola. As a whole when taken together these different representations of pain can act as a representation of one’s own understanding and changing process of grief which ultimately ends with expectancy and a fondness that results in merriment.


Works Cited

E. A. J. Honigmann. “Tiger Shakespeare and Gentle Shakespeare.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 107, no. 3, 2012, pp. 699–711. JSTOR

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Shakespeare: the essential plays and the Sonnets. 3rd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Kirsch, Arthur. “Hamlet's Grief.” ELH, vol. 48, no. 1, 1981, pp. 17–36. JSTOR

Penuel, Suzanne. “Missing Fathers: Twelfth Night and the Reformation of Mourning.” Studies in Philology, vol. 107, no. 1, 2010, pp. 74–96. JSTOR

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