Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shakespeare's Ophelia...reality based?

Arthur Spear

The 1569 coroner's report describing the death of Jane Shaxspere, who drowned aged two-and-a-half while picking marigolds near Stratford-upon-Avon.

"The real Ophelia? 1569 coroner's report suggests Shakespeare link"

Death of Jane Shaxspere bore hallmarks of character and girl may even have been relative of playwright


Maev Kennedy

June 8th, 2011

The Guardian

A little girl of the 16th century, who lost her footing while picking flowers, tumbled into a mill pond and drowned, could have inspired one of the most famous tragic heroines of literature.

Shakespeare was five at the time of the tragedy that befell Jane Shaxspere in 1569, and would not write Hamlet until 40 years later, but academics now believe the girl may have inspired the fate of the author's character Ophelia.

Shakespeare's noblewoman fell with her garlands of "crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples" into a brook, singing "snatches of old tunes" until her waterlogged clothes dragged her under to her death. She was old enough to marry Hamlet when she drowned, a scene immortalised by many artists including John Everett Millais, who almost killed his model, Lizzie Siddall, by leaving her lying for so long in a bath of cold water.

Jane Shaxspere was only two and a half when she died, picking "yellow boddles" or corn marigolds, according to the coroner's report.

As the scene of her death, Upton Warren on the river Salwarpe, in Worcestershire, was only 20 miles from Shakespeare's childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon, historians at Oxford University speculate that the playwright could have heard of the event.

Historians believe Jane could even have been a relative of William: the spelling of his surname was notoriously eclectic in his day, and there are variations even in his own signature.

The academics came upon Jane's short life while trawling through Tudor coroners' reports into accidental deaths, part of a four-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The coroner, Henry Feeld, was scrupulous in details: "By reason of collecting and holding out certain flowers called 'yelowe boddles' growing on the bank of a certain small channel at Upton aforesaid called Upton myll pond – the same Jane Shaxspere the said sixteenth day of June about the eighth hour after noon of the same day suddenly and by misfortune fell into the same small channel and was drowned in the aforesaid small channel; and then and there she instantly died."

He added the plaintive note: "And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of the death of the aforesaid Jane; and they are worth nothing."

Steven Gunn, from the history faculty at Oxford, said: "The detail in which Jane Shaxspere's death was reported suggests children's deaths merited careful consideration. Other young girls are similarly reported as drowning when picking flowers. It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxpere's entry in the coroner's reports – it might be just a coincidence but the links to Ophelia are tantalising."

Emma Smith, of the English language and literature faculty, added: "Even if Jane Shaxspere were not related to the playwright, the echo of their names might well have meant that this story stuck in his mind. It's 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."

More than 9,000 coroners' records survive, drawn up by men who were mainly local gentlemen with some legal training but little medical knowledge. The reports are in the National Archives, at Kew, south-west London, because they were given to assize judges on circuit, then taken to London.

Some are more Monty Python than Shakespeare. One man shot himself in the head trying to get an arrow out of his longbow, another fell into a cesspit while relieving himself and drowned.

Seasonal entertainments were clearly highly dangerous: 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. Another man is cryptically described as crushing his testicles while playing "a Christmas game".

Three people were killed by performing bears, and one of the bears was clearly too valuable to die for the crime, priced at 26 shillings, four pence. Others died wrestling, playing football, bell ringing, and lobbing sledgehammers for sport.

Patterns are already emerging from the study: more died in summer when people were out and about, but relatively few people died in house fires because most lived in single-storey homes and could easily escape. And, by 1556, accidental deaths from handguns were more common than from archery.

Gunn added: "We also have a lady who had an accident called Elizabeth Bennett, but we are not making any literary claims there."

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