Tuesday Poem: Shakespeare's children

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver'd o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
     And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence,
     Save breed, to brave him, when he takes thee hence.

It's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this week and I've been taking another look through the sonnets.  A few of the most famous are familiar to us all, but the others are rarely given an airing.  What struck me on re-reading was the number of sonnets in which the Bard expresses the urge to have a child,  preferably from a beautiful woman -  'From fairest creatures we desire increase,' [Sonnet I].  He begs his mistress, 'Make thee another self for love of me,/That beauty still may live in thine or thee' [Sonnet X], otherwise the 'you' of the poem will be 'Death's conquest, and make worms thine heir' [Sonnet VI].

In Sonnet IX, the poet exhorts people to marry in order to have children.

'Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife . . .
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,'

In Sonnet III

'Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another;
... Die single and thine image dies with thee.'

Sometimes the desired child is explicitly male.

'So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son.'  [Sonnet VII]

Shakespeare had three children by his wife Anne Hathaway;  a daughter, Susannah, born a few months after their marriage, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, born two years later.  Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, died tragically at the age of eleven.  His daughters survived into adulthood and married. Susannah gave birth to an only daughter, Elizabeth, who married a barrister, but had no children. This grand-daughter was Shakespeare's last surviving descendant.  His other daughter Judith made a scandalous relationship with an unfaithful vintner who had an illegitimate child with another woman. However, Judith stood by him, although Shakespeare altered his will to make sure her husband could not benefit from it.  Judith had three sons, but they all died before the age of 21.  [Find out more]

Although he didn't die until April 1616, Shakespeare had no recorded children after 1585, either with his wife or with any of the women he took as lovers. This doesn't mean that there were no illegitimate offspring, but only that they were unacknowledged.  It's possible that there were none. Sexually transmitted infections left many people sterile and female fertility was often low, due to poor nutrition (Shakespeare's eldest daughter suffered from scurvy), urinary tract and fallopian tube infections, as well as the complications of birthing children.

But if Shakespeare left no proven descendants, he left his plays and his poetry as a lasting legacy that he could never have anticipated.

P.S.  There's an intriguing theory that the sonnets contain references to a possible illegitimate child borne by Elizabeth 1st to the Earl of Oxford.  Alan Tarica has written extensively on the sonnets and their enigmatic content. 


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