Oxford Historian Dr Steven Gunn has reportedly found evidence helping to identify the inspiration behind one of Shakespeare’s most tragic characters, Ophelia.
Ophelia, who loses her mind after the man she loves, Hamlet, kills her father, drowned to death picking flowers in the Shakespeare text. The image of the drowning girl along with her flowers is the inspiration for the famous Millais painting, which now has a value of £30M.
Having searched through countless Tudor coronary reports, Gunn came across the report of a young Jane Shaxspeare drowning in 1569, with “tantalising” links to Ophelia. Due to the similarities of the names, Gunn told the Cherwell, Shaxspeare and Shakespeare might well have been cousins as not much is known about Shakespeare’s family beyond his father. Furthermore, as both Shakespeare and Shaxspeare lived only 20 miles apart and were only 3 years apart in age, it is very likely that William would have been aware of this story and drawn some inspiration from it.
The coroner’s report describes the two and a half year old Jane Shaxspeare picking marigolds in a stream by Upton Millpond, Worcestershire, and then falling in, upon which she “instantly died”. As concluded by the report, “And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of death of the aforesaid Jane”.
Gunn commented, “I don’t think we can know whether Jane Shaxspere’s drowning really inspired William to come up with the character of Ophelia, but it’s quite possible”.
The research forms part of a four year project with the Economic and Social Research Council, intended to discover as much as possible from coroner’s reports in sixteenth-century England.
Gunn continued, “Coroners’ reports of fatal accidents are a useful and hitherto under-studied way of exploring everyday life in Tudor England”.
Many of the reported Tudor deaths have appeared almost farcical however, with at least 3 people being killed by performing bears.
One Scottish figure also died having reportedly been trying to display a popular ‘pastime’ from his native country, involving lying down and being tied up. Even more mysterious is the man who died from his testicles being crushed during a ‘Christmas game’.
Gunn advice to History and English students is simply that the discovery of Jane Shaxspeare “is a reminder of the fascinating things out there to be found in archives”.