In 'Hamnet' ArtsEmerson Explores The Life And Death Of Shakespeare's Only Son

Ollie West in "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)
Ollie West in "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)

Scholars have long argued whether the death of Shakespeare's only son Hamnet steered the famed playwright's work into a darker, more tragic direction. Hamnet died at the tender age of 11 in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he lived with his mother, Anne Hathaway and his twin sister Judith. Shakespeare was in London basking in fame and admiration as an actor and writer when his son fell ill.

There are no records that show he attended his young son's funeral or that his young son even knew Shakespeare.

What happened to Shakespeare after Hamnet's death has been the subject of much scholarly and cultural work: He wrote his most famous comedies "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," followed by some of the most productive years of his life with the publication of still grimmer work including "Henry V," "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet."

But Shakespeare's son remains a mystery, almost a sad footnote in the playwright's storied life. His cause of death is unknown. Did he know his father? Did he feel abandoned? ArtsEmerson's production of "Hamnet" created by Ireland's Dead Centre, allows us a glimpse into young Hamnet's short life and death.

The title “Hamnet” is a play on words, said Bush Moukarzel, one of the show's playwrights. Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet” a few years after Hamnet died. His son is one letter away from being the subject of his father’s fascination.

“His name evokes a solitary image,” Moukarzel said. “This poor, real-life boy, called Hamnet, who was born and died feels usurped by this fictional son of his father called Hamlet. This solitary image and mood led me to think of a theater piece with an 11-year-old boy, onstage, alone for that length of time.”

Ollie West as "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)
Ollie West as "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)

“Hamnet” has been performed at various stages across Europe and in Australia and makes its U.S. Premiere with ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage on Sept. 20 until Oct. 7, with 14-year old Ollie West performing and handing off the role to 11-year-old Aran Murphy after the second week of the show.

Ultimately, the play is a window into a child's innocent but complex thoughts. It asks us to ponder on the emotional cost of fame and tireless work. When building an artistic legacy, who does that legacy overshadow, abandon, neglect?

Perhaps the most ambitious component of the play is that it leaves the interpretation of these complicated ideas to a young actor, tasking him with the stewardship of such emotional weight. In a recent interview, West revealed himself to be exactly what so many of us were at 14: shy and restless, seemingly aloof but probably a lot more aware than adults gave us credit for. He chewed and pulled on the tag of an Indiana Jones-style hat he had just purchased—instead of food for lunch—until pulling it off. He played with the hat and fidgeted while listening to Moukarzel.

Ollie West in "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)
Ollie West in "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)

In the play, deceased Hamnet goes through a journey to understand many things, like why he’s been an 11-year-old for so many years and why his father abandoned him and where he is. Moukarzel said he wanted to evoke a solitary image of the forgotten child. “His line of reasoning and thinking is (child-like),” Moukarzel said.

West's embodiment of Hamnet brought a child-like innocence to the tragic narrative, added Moukarzel. Hamnet finds space for joy, cracks jokes and navigates existential questions with wonder and earnestness throughout the play. If you read child-like and imagine drippy, know that "Hamnet" has been hailed as an unsentimental yet profound exploration into a child's mind.

"The sadness is because you see a guy (Hamnet) not knowing the full depth of his situation," said Moukarzel.

“Hamnet” was written with West in mind as the star, Moukarzel said. The two worked together briefly for the development of “Chekhov’s First Play."

"That dude knows what he’s doing," Moukarzel said he thought when he first met West.

Moukarzel developed his idea for “Hamnet” as an hour-long show that would center on the young actor’s performance, which with West’s blessing, will be handed off to Murphy, the other young actor.

“I’m getting too old for it,” West said of the role. “I’m getting taller and my voice is getting deeper. I’m kind of excited … it’s like passing on the torch.”

Ollie West in "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)
Ollie West in "Hamnet" (Courtesy Gianmarco Bresadola)

West said he's given tips to Murphy, who has already performed “Hamnet.” “Like, to stay calm in case something bad happens,” West said, referring to a scene where Hamnet invites an audience member to go onstage with him. “And like, try to go for people who are … a young person because they’re more likely to come up, and also people who look like they have friends over as well. Because (their friends) are kind of chanting for them to go.”

Overall, West is convinced the play is in good hands — a child's hands.

“Hamnet” premieres in the U.S. with ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage on Sept. 20 until Oct. 7.


Headshot of Cintia Lopez

Cintia Lopez Arts Fellow
Cintia Lopez was a fellow for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team.



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