Is it possible that a two-year-old girl who drowned in a millpond while gathering corn marigolds near Shakespeare’s home in 1569 could be the source of Hamlet’s Ophelia, one of literature’s most tragic heroines? Scholars from Britain, searching through 9,000 Tudor-era coroners’ records, believe they have stumbled onto something.
News of her death may have lingered in the mind of Shakespeare and his fellow villagers. The young girl, Jane Shaxspere, may even have been a distant relative of the Bard, who often took liberties in the spelling of his name.
“Drownings accounted for nearly half of all accidental deaths at that time,” says Steven Gunn, a history professor at Oxford, who noted that the girl’s death may have stood out as a poignant local memory in an era of commonplace violence and routine death.
The scholars’ document search has uncovered many less literary means of departing, including no fewer than three maulings by performing bears, a fatal wrestling injury, a man crushed in an unfortunate falling-Maypole incident, and a pitiful Cambridge baker who slipped backward into his family’s cesspit. Lord, what fools? Not all, perhaps, but certainly mortal.
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