Shakespeare’s Relative May Have Inspired Ophelia

June 8, 2011 12:35:00 PM

The death of William Shakespeare’s relative may have provided the inspiration for tragic heroine Ophelia, the doomed object of Hamlet’s love, Oxford University researchers claimed Wednesday.

Coroner’s reports of accidental deaths in Tudor England showed that a Jane Shaxspere drowned aged two-and-a-half while picking corn marigolds 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon home, researchers found.

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In Shakespeare’s classic, Ophelia drowns in a brook after hanging flowers in a willow tree. The poetic moment is famously captured in John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting.

The Bard would have been five at the time of Jane Shaxspere’s 1569 death, and the Oxford team believe the two children may have been related.

“It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxspere’s entry in the coroners’ reports,” Steven Gunn of Oxford University’s Faculty of History said.

“It might just be a coincidence, but the links to Ophelia are certainly tantalizing,” he added.

The coroner recorded a verdict of “misfortune” on Jane’s death.

Emma Smith, of Oxford’s Faculty of English Language and Literature, agreed the incident could be behind one of literature’s most poignant scenes.

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“Even if Jane Shaxspere were not related to the playwright, the echo of their names might well have meant this story stuck in his mind,” she argued. “It’s a good reminder that, while Shakespeare’s plays draw on well-attested literary sources, they also often have their roots in gossip, the mundane, and the domestic detail of everyday life.”