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Have historians found the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare’s Ophelia?

The death of a young child in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon may have inspired the noted playwright when composing one of his most famous and enduring plays, Hamlet.

John Neville as Hamlet and Judi Dench as Ophelia during rehearsals for Hamlet in 1957.
John Neville as Hamlet and Judi Dench as Ophelia during rehearsals for Hamlet in 1957.
Image: Barratts/S&G Barratts/EMPICS Archive

HISTORIANS AT OXFORD University believe they may have traced the real-life inspiration for one of the most famous Shakesperian characters back to the playwright’s childhood home of Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

A two-and-a-half-year-old girl who fell into a pond and drowned while out picking flowers in 1569 – when Shakespeare himself was five – could have inspired the tragic demise of the character of Ophelia, the Guardian reports.

According to a report by then-coroner Henry Feeld, young Jane Shaxpere was collecting “certain flowers called ‘yelowe boddles’” when she “suddenly and by misfortune fell” into a small channel of water close by and drowned.

Recording a verdict of ‘misfortune’, Feeld concludes: “And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of the death of the aforesaid Jane; and they are worth nothing”.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s love-interest Ophelia drowns while picking flowers and hanging them on a Willow tree.

Historians suspect Shakespeare may have even been related to Jane Shaxpere, given the number of variations shown in the spelling of names at that time.

The AFP reports that Emma Smith, of Oxford’s English literature faculty, said it was possible that the incident stuck in Shakespeare’s mind even if he wasn’t related to young Jane, given the “echo of their names”.

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