THE BLOG

To Drown or Not to Drown: The Sixteenth Century Suicide That Inspired Hamlet

13/05/2013 16:44 BST | Updated 12/07/2013 10:12 BST

I live in Canterbury. It's not the only English city overflowing with history but it is a compact little circle, with plenty of Norman, medieval and Tudor features sitting atop its Roman streets. Until fairly recently, I used to teach English in a grammar school set in fields overlooking the cathedral. I would often use my location to inject a bit of colour into lessons, encouraging small boys to picture Chaucer's pilgrims walking up the present day high street to the Checker of the Hope Inn, which is now a sweet shop, or Christopher Marlowe being born on the site of the new shopping centre. For a few years, I taught Hamlet for AS-level coursework, spending whole days acting and analysing imagery, context and the conventions of tragedy. Imagine my surprise then, when I was researching the history of my street in the sixteenth century and found that it had a direct influence on Shakespeare's portrayal of the death of the hero's beloved Ophelia.

I live off a long, wide road called Wincheap, or Wine chepe (market), as it was in the medieval period, when merchants gathered there to sell their imported wines. It begins opposite the Norman Castle and passes out of the old city walls for about a mile before it reaches the Thanington area. The manor there was owned by the prominent local Hales family, whose patterns of fertility and childbirth I was studying, when I uncovered an interesting anecdote about Sir James Hales.

Born around 1500, the son of John Hales, MP for the city, James had prospered under the regime of Henry VIII and Edward VI, becoming a judge and Baron of the Exchequer. However, as a devout Protestant, he had refused to convert to Catholicism under Mary I and had ended up being imprisoned in the Tower of London. James appears to have been a volatile and melancholy character; his misfortune led him to try and commit suicide with a knife whilst incarcerated. By August 1554, he had been released and was staying with his nephew at the Thanington Manor when he succeeded in killed himself by lying face-down in the river. This branch of the Stour now runs alongside a path popular with walkers and cyclists, along which I had walked on the very day that I later discovered James' fate.

Hales' death prompted a famous court case, Hales v. Petit. His widow, Margaret, attempted to regain some of his property, which according to sixteenth century legal practice, would have been forfeit in the case of James taking his own life. Bizarrely, the argument turned on whether the "felony" had occurred before Hales' death or afterwards. In 1554, the coroner ruled that his death was a criminal act but the case dragged on until 1562, when the ruling finally went against Margaret. The lawyer Sir Edmund Plowden published a full report of the case in 1571, so it is likely that Shakespeare saw his version of this infamous struggle. It appears to have crept into the conversation of two incidental characters in one of his best known plays.

At the start of act five, two "clowns" debate the legal question of suicide. This is prompted by the death of Ophelia, who was "clambering to hang" the "fantastic garlands" she had made on a willow tree growing over a brook. When the branch broke and she fell, her heavy garments weighed her down and, driven to madness by Hamlet's murder of her father, was "incapable of her own distress." One clown tells us she is to have a Christian burial but the other argues that this is contrary to the contemporary notion that to take one's own life was "self-murder," thus excluding the culprit from burial in consecrated ground or receiving funeral rites. Then follows an odd little speech explaining that it is one thing if a man goes to water to drown himself and quite another if the water comes to him, which was "crowner's quest law" (coroner's inquest law). This is almost word for word what the inquest ruled in the case of Canterbury's James Hales.

When teaching Hamlet, I had always found this scene strange. I can accept the juxtaposition of the jaunty little humour with the morbidity of Ophelia's funeral; it's a necessary outlet from all the intense passion. But this little section of dialogue seemed to relate to something so specific and sit oddly with the rest of the scene, that I concluded that there was simply something I was missing. Now I know what it was.

As we walked home from town beside the river Stour this Saturday, the "glassy stream" was peaceful. There were indeed trees, if not willows, growing aslant the brook, reflecting their "hoar leaves" in its clear waters and nettles and daisies growing alongside, just as described in Hamlet. There were also teenagers on bikes, high speed trains rattling alongside and toddlers playing pooh sticks. Strange to think that almost five hundred and fifty years before, one man's act of despair here could have inspired one of the greatest tragic scenes in early modern drama.