Bundles of Joy
Susanna, Hamnet & Judith

William Shakespeare had three children: his first-born was a girl. It was on Sunday, the 26th of May, 1583, that Will’s daughter Susanna was christened.

She may well have been the apple of his eye. After her death her epitaph said she was “Witty above her sex,” and a local writer, years later, described her in this wise: “Something of Shakespeare was in her.”

Less than two years later Anne Hathaway Shakespeare gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. So Will’s family was complete. He hadn’t yet made it to the age of twenty-one and he had acquired a wife and three kids.

(By the way, the picture above is not of the Shakespeare children; as you may have guessed, there is no picture of them. This is as close as I could come to one.)

Susanna may have been a lively, witty girl, but she settled down. She married John Hall, the most successful doctor in town. She would have had to settle down because Hall was a solid, no-nonsense Puritan.

Which makes all the more strange the events of 1613.

There was a local neerdowell in town, one John Lane, who had been in all kinds of trouble: he had been sued for riot and drunkenness and for having libeled various aldermen. You couldn’t go around libeling aldermen. Well, this character Lane told folks that the respectable Mrs. Susanna Hall had “the running of the reins (kidneys),” which was his indelicate way of claiming that she had gonorrhea.

He went further; he also claimed that she had been “naught” with a local hatter, Ralph Smith. “Naught,” in that time and in that context didn’t mean “nothing.” It meant “had screwed around with.”

Lively Susanna fought back. She sued Lane for slander.

In some ways, Stratford was a small town. Rumors of a scandalous nature were quick to circulate; it was important to quash them immediately. Susanna quashed effectively. John Lane didn’t show up at the trial and as a result he was excommunicated.

That may not seem like much to us, but in that society it was solid punishment. At any rate, Susanna had her reputation restored. At the back of my mind as I read of this event I had to wonder: was Susanna angry because someone thought she would have extra-marital sex, or that someone thought she would have extra-marital sex with a hatter? :-)

Will’s other two kids, the twins, were named Judith and Hamnet.

Judith had the misfortune to marry a guy pretty much like John Lane: Thomas Quiney. Will Shakespeare didn’t like this son-in-law at all. He had made another woman pregnant while courting Judith, which caused problems because soon after the marriage the woman died, along with her infant – a huge scandal. Quiney was brought before the court for “whoredom and uncleanness.” The marriage was off to a great start.

Will’s only son was named Hamnet. The natural conclusion would be that this name had something to do with the play “Hamlet,” but it seems that it didn’t. The boy (and his twin sister) were named after Will’s close, life-long friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

It’s a sad fact that the playwright’s only son died at the age of eleven. How did Will react to his son’s death? He may have expressed his feelings when he wrote these powerful lines.

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts.”

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