The Mystery of Hamlet and Hamnet

It’s usually noted in introductions to Hamlet that the title character was named after Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (the names and spelling were interchangeable at the time), who had died about 3 years previously at age 11. That’s usually where the discussion ends, since there is no obvious connection between these two facts, and yet it remains a very unsatisfying state of affairs; surely it must mean something, right? But why would Shakespeare name this vacillating,neurotic, possible hero, possible villain, definite murderer, after his young son? What kind of awful tribute would that make?

Critics have observed the general gloominess of the play’s mood and its body count and speculated about death and depression. Grief and loss. And yet, like most of the connections between Shakespeare’s biography and his work, it remains bafflingly opaque.

Here’s my theory (which I touch on in a longer paper, which is currently being queued for rejection at various literary journals): one of the big themes of Hamlet is lost possibilities. Wait…”lost possibilities” is not quite right…lost versions of reality, much like the “many worlds” of physics that coexist alongside the world that an observer experiences. Ways of being–worlds–which for the characters should have been, but will not be. Almost every scene contains the spectre of events past, present, and future, which might-have-been or be, and is then flung back into nothingness in a Sartrean negation.

Just as Hamlet Sr would not live happily with his Queen.
Just as Hamlet would not become king.
Just as Hamlet and Ophelia would not be married.
Just as Hamlet and Ophelia would not have a child together.
Just as Hamlet would not go to Wittenburg.
Just as Hamlet would not kill Claudius when he had the chance.
Just as Gertrude would not have a daughter in law and grandchild.

Many, many things, great and small, which might have been, should have been, but will never be…
just like Shakespeare’s son.

Hamlet is the perfect, most profound and beautiful elegy from Shakespeare to his son.