Since Father’s Day was just a few days ago, I’ve been thinking a great deal about them. I have had the privilege of having a wonderful father my entire life. I say privilege because I’m acutely aware that the number of bad fathers in the world outweighs the good ones, and I know I’m lucky that I got a good one. My father has always been there for me but has never been overbearing. He has always been thrilled to let me be myself and to learn from my own falls. He’s the type of father that let me choose my own clothes for school, even when it meant I proudly wore two different colored socks. When I was little and in ballet, he patiently took me to all the practices and recitals when mom worked late, even when it meant he got called a pervert by the other mothers in the dressing room. He simply smiled and straightened my feathered/sequined/whatever-the-costume-was.
While I was walking Tug last night, I witnessed another prime example of a good father. In the humid summer evening air, a father was taking his usual run, but pushing his daughter in a stroller. Now, since she was NOT an infant that meant she added a bit to his load. But there he was, heaving and wheezing, but pushing her along at a good pace in the heat. But even better, he talked to her the whole time. They had complete conversations; he even patiently answered all her toddler questions, like, “why are there stars?”, “do ducks ever sleep?”, “why is that dog so interested in the tree?” etc. Since it was a typical summer evening in Tennessee, there was heat lightning in the sky, and they were counting the flashes. That’s right; he kept count amid his gasps for air. Now that’s a good father. It’s those nights that his daughter will remember when she’s older.
So, what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Old Willy was himself a father and, by all contemporary accounts, a good one although often absent. Indeed, most scholars believe his first pursuits in the theatre were not due to some deep desire but to the need for a simple paycheck since at 21 he was already married and the father of three. Indeed, at the beginning of his career, his contemporaries, like Robert Greene, considered him an “upstart Crow.” Greene himself had had the best of educations, whereas poor old William had only been entitled to an education at the King’s School. It was more than many men in England at the time, but not quite to the standards of Greene. I guess Shakespeare got the last laugh there.
In 1596, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died. What probably compounded this tragedy was not just that he was away so often, but that he was also reaching the pinnacle of his career. Yet, Hamnet’s death perhaps added a bitter taste to an otherwise happy time. Indeed, shortly after he had made enough to not only pay off his own father’s debts but also to buy “The New Place,” a large new house in Stratford. After Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays, and unsurprisingly, most concerned relationships of fathers and children. Hamlet in 1600, King Lear in 1606, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest in 1610 all center on the relationships between fathers and children. The closeness of Hamnet’s name and Hamlet’s was probably more of a coincidence as the story of Hamlet was not original. In fact, it was taken mostly from Saxo’s legend of “Amleth”. However, its timing, even though the story was at the time, popular, probably at the very least hit a personal note with Shakespeare. After all, not only did his only son die in 1596, his father died in 1601 after a long decline. Indeed, Shakespeare had probably long felt some degree of guilt about his own father’s decline while he succeeded. Evidence suggests John Shakespeare was probably illiterate, a cruel irony considering Shakespeare’s career.
Shakespeare was by no means a traditional family man since he spent more time in London than at home, not to mention evidence that he was rarely faithful to his wife. Yet, I do believe that he loved his family, wife included, and they were continually on his mind. No artist can write so movingly and convincingly about family tragedies and relationships without knowing that familial love himself. And in this light, a reread of The Tempest or A Winter’s Tale can be seen in a whole new light. Try it and think of your own fathers. I promise his words will reach you.