William Shakespeare was acquainted with great grief. Learning this has deepened my admiration for the playwright and what he has penned about grief.

The Bard, as Shakespeare is often referred to, was one of eight children. The family experienced multiple losses.

First born to parents Mary and John Shakespeare was Joan, who lived two months after birth. Margaret, the second child, died at one year of age. William was third-born and was the oldest surviving child. Next was Gilbert and then another daughter, also named Joan, survived. The next child was Anne, who died aged 7 when William would have been 14 years old. Next was Richard who lived to be 39; then Edmund who died at 27. William outlived all of his siblings except the second sister named Joan. William lived to the age of 52.

The above dates are approximate due to the kinds of records that were kept at the time.

There must have been many other occasions for William to witness the death of children. The plague was rampant in England, and the fear, suffering and death counts were horrifying.

As a young man, William married Anne Hathaway and had three children. Susanna was born six months after the wedding, and two years later the twins, Hamnet and Judith were born.

In 1596, while writing the history play King John, Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, died. No official record or note exists on the cause of death.

A window into Shakespeare’s grief can be seen in the play, “King John,” through the words of Constance, who believing her son to be dead says with great irony:

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child.
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words.
Remembers me of all his gracious parts.
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief.”

Other quotes show Shakespeare’s insight into grief.

“My grief lies all within
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul.”

“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

“He that is thy friend indeed,
He will help thee in thy need:
If thou sorrow, he will weep;
If thou wake, he cannot sleep:
Thus of every grief in heart
He with thee does bear a part.
These are certain signs to know
Faithful friend from flattering foe.”

“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.”

These writings show great insight, born out of loss and grief. They continue to speak for grieving people even today.

Tags: ,

Kim Go

I am an artist in the expressive, installation and performance arts. I write because of our shared cultural beliefs about loss offer far too few tools to people working with grief. When I was very young, I thought little about impermanence. Then, my personal encounters with impermanence grew to include such challenges as: my father's death in early childhood, a near-death experience in adolescence, divorce, fertility challenges, death of a soul mate and spouse and subsequent loss of access to stepchildren, mugging and assault, pet loss, job loss, suicide of two close friends, and geographic resettlement. Perhaps we have something in common... perhaps not. I have learned that the specificity of the loss does not matter as much as the condition of the heart to be open to others who are learning to be present and alive regardless of the impermanence in their story.

More Articles Written by Kim