June 8, 2011 / 2:29 PM / 8 years ago

Oxford academic finds "tantalizing" clue to Ophelia

LONDON (Reuters) - An Oxford academic has found a “tantalizing” link between Shakespeare’s tragic heroine Ophelia and a real-life girl who died at the age of two in 1569, when the Bard would have been around five years old.

Admitting his discovery could be pure coincidence, Steven Gunn of the university’s Faculty of History said he had unearthed records of the death of a Jane Shaxspere some 20 miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was raised.

She fell into a mill pond and drowned while picking flowers, called “yelowe boddles,” or corn marigolds.

“If Jane was his younger cousin, the parallels to Ophelia — who picked flowers and drowned when she fell into a river in ‘Hamlet’ — are intriguing,” said a statement from Oxford University.

Gunn is leading research into coroners’ reports of accidental deaths in Tudor England, which he called “a useful and hitherto under-studied way of exploring everyday life.

“It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxspere’s entry in the coroners’ reports — it might just be a coincidence, but the links to Ophelia are certainly tantalizing,” he said.

Emma Smith of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford University added that even if the girl in question had not been related to William Shakespeare, her name and story may have stuck in his mind.

“It’s a good reminder that, while Shakespeare’s plays draw on well-attested literary sources, they also often have their roots in gossip, the mundane, and the domestic detail of everyday life,” she said.

“It’s interesting to think of Ophelia combining classical and Renaissance antecedents with the local tragedy of a drowned girl.”

According to Gunn, his research into the coroners’ reports had thrown up some surprising results.

One man shot himself in the head while trying to remove an arrow that had stuck in his longbow, another fell into a cesspit while relieving himself and at least three people were killed by performing bears.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato

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