Anyone who knows anything about Ben Elton’s sitcom Upstart Crow writing will appreciate that it can turn from slapstick to sombre on a sixpence.
And anyone who knows anything about William Shakespeare will know that he saw a lot of darkness during his lifetime – in particular the death in 1596 of his 11-year-old son Hamnet.
This was a biographical detail that writer Elton picked up on with the moving series three finale of Upstart Crow, his Shakespeare comedy starring David Mitchell.
A typically jaunty plot revolved around Will’s hopes at a theatre awards ceremony, with a subplot featuring young Hamnet about to be confirmed.
However, Hamnet died before Will could return from the ceremony, leaving him only with surviving children Susanna and Hamnet’s twin sister Judith, as well as wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck).
The moment had shades of the moving climax to Blackadder Goes Forth – the First World War-set version of the comedy co-written by Elton, in which the characters head over the top in the final scene.
In Upstart Crow, the death of Hamlet (below, played by Joe Willis) leads to reflection on the existence of God, with David Mitchell’s Will espousing a disbelief in divine mercy.
Shakespeare scholars believe that for Shakespeare the death of his only son was of seismic importance to him – and explains the plots of lost children (and in some cases miraculous return) in many of his later plays such as Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.
It is also thought by some to have informed the writer’s embrace of tragedy with his great plays including Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.
Hamnet was William Shakespeare’s only son – the twin brother of Judith and younger sibling of eldest child Susanna.
Little is known about him, apart from the date of his Christening (2nd February 1585) and burial on 11th August 1596.
He was probably named after Shakespeare’s friend Hamnet Sadler, and readers continue to speculate on the similarity between his name and the name of Shakespeare’s most famous character, Hamlet.
Upstart Crow will return later this year with a Christmas special