Drowned Tudor girl may have inspired Shakespeare

Shady brook13 June 2011

ESRC-funded research into Tudor deaths has unearthed a possible inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Ophelia, the Hamlet character who drowned in a brook while picking flowers.

Dr Steven Gunn, historian at the University of Oxford, has found a coroner’s report of a 'Jane Shaxspere' from 1569. She was two and a half years old when she died, drowning in a millpond stream while picking marigolds.

Jane Shaxspere may have been a cousin of Shakespeare, and lived only 20 miles from his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The tragedy is likely to have made an impact in the local community, and at the time of her death he would have been six years old – old enough to remember the death later in life.

"We can’t tell how closely related Jane Shaxspere was to William Shakespeare, but as he was only three years older and lived some 20 miles away it’s quite possible they were cousins," says Dr Gunn.

A previous contender as inspiration for the Ophelia character is Katharine Hamlet, who drowned in the river Avon not far from Stratford when William Shakespeare was 16 years old.

"Perhaps Jane Shaxspere’s death picking flowers blended with Katherine Hamlet’s, fetching water at Stratford some years later, to shape the character of Ophelia in the playwright’s mind," Steven Gunn suggests.

The tragic Ophelia character has in turn inspired other artists, including pre-Raphaelite John Millais with his famous painting Ophelia.

Dr Gunn points out that Shakespeare used events of his life in his plays, and a drowning would be an accident that many of his audience also would be familiar with. Jane Shaxspere was not the only girl who was recorded drowned while picking flowers, and working men had the habit of bathing in rivers and ponds on hot days – which led to three drowning accidents in June and July 1558 alone, according to the research.

The ESRC-funded research project, Everyday life and fatal hazard in sixteenth-century England, has uncovered the dangerous life of Tudors.

 "Coroners’ records can shed light on aspects of everyday life in the sixteenth century about which we otherwise have very little evidence," explains Dr Gunn.

Causes of death included performing bears, a falling maypole, an open cesspit – and the rare case of a man shooting himself in the head while trying to remove an arrow from a longbow.

RES-062-23-2819: Everyday life and fatal hazard in sixteenth-century England