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William Shakespeare: Hamnet & Hamlet

In 1601 Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. What prompted this mournful, melancholy play, whose main character's first actions alone on stage are to contemplate suicide, mourning "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world"?15 Some believe the 1596 death from an unknown illness of Shakespeare's 11-year-old son—the intriguingly named Hamnet—prompted the dark tone in the playwright's later works. Other scholars think that the death of Shakespeare's father in 1601—the same year he wrote Hamlet—inspired his exploration of a grieving son. These are both plausible explanations, but there's simply no way to say for sure if they are true. It is clear that after Hamlet, the plays took a distinctly darker tone for the next few years. Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth covered murder, jealousy, pride and betrayal.

Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, ending the Elizabethan era and ushering in the Jacobean age. Her successor, King James I (previously King James VI of Scotland) was equally enamored of Shakespeare's troupe. The players changed their name to the King's Men and performed before the royal court a whopping eleven times in a single year. In 1608, the troupe moved their primary playing house from the Globe to the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London. Shakespeare was nearing retirement. His final plays—Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the now-lost Cardenio—were written in collaboration with John Fletcher, his replacement as the King's Men's chief dramatist.

The golden age of the King's Men was coming to an end. During a 1613 performance of Henry VIII—possibly the premiere—disaster struck the Globe. Fireworks fired off to mark the king's entry on stage sparked the thatch roof, and the wooden Globe burned to the ground in less than an hour. Despite the total destruction of the theater, no lives were lost thanks to patrons' quick thinking. "Only one man had his breeches set on fire," a witness to the fire noted, "that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle Ale."16

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