‘Crowner,’ Shakespeare’s word for ‘coroner’ appears in two plays, and on both occasions it is associated with death by drowning. It appears in the discussion of the two gravediggers about the cause of Ophelia’s death in the opening of the last act of Hamlet:
1 Is she to be buried in Christian burial when
2 she willfully seeks her own salvation?
3 I tell thee she is, therefore make her grave
4 straight. The crowner hath sate on her, and finds it
5 Christian burial.
6 How can that be, unless she drown’d herself
7 in her own defense?
It also appears in the bantering conversation between Olivia and Feste about Sir Toby:
130 What’s a drunken man like, fool?
131 Like a drown’d man, a fool, and a madman.
132 One draught above heat makes him a fool, the second
133 mads him, and a third drowns him.
134 Go thou and seek the crowner, and let him sit
135 o’ my coz; for he’s in the third degree of drink, he’s
136 drown’d. Go look after him.
137 He is but mad yet, madonna, and the fool
138 shall look to the madman.
The two plays are close in time, and one may note that the rhyme of ‘crown’ and ‘drown’probably produced an association of a coroner’s inquest and death by drowning on both occasions. It is also worth noting that madness appears together with drowning and the coroner in both scenes.
But more may be at work. Edgar Fripp, a biographer of Shakespeare who devoted his life to anchoring the poet’s biography in the daily world of sixteenth-century Stratford, many years ago drew attention to a Latin record in the public records of Stratford, describing the inquest "super visum Katherine Hamlett nuper de Tidington predictain comitatu predicto spinster ibidem mortua et submersa inventa" (on a view of the body ofKatherine Hamlett, late of Tiddington aforesaid in the County aforesaid, found there dead and drowned).
Katherine Hamlett was found dead on December 17, 1579. The inquest was not held until February 11, 1580, and it asserted the truth of the witnesses who claimed
Quod predicta Katherina Hamlett decimo septimo die Decembris Anno Regni predicte domine Regine vicesimo secundo iens cum quodam mulctrale Anglice a Paile ad afferendam aquam ad Rivum vocatum Havon in Tidington predicta Ita accidit quod predicta Katherina stans super ripam eiusdem Rivi subito ac per infortunium lapsit et cecidit in Rivum predictum et ibidem in aqua eiusdem Rivi dicti decimo septimo Die Decembris Anno predicto apud Tidington predictam in comitatu predicto per infortunium submersa fuit, et non aliter nec alio modo ad mortem suam devenit.
that the aforesaid Katherine Hamlett, on the seventeenth day of December in the twenty-second year of the reign of the aforesaid lady the Queen, going with a certain vessel, in English a paile, to draw water at the river called Avon in Tiddington aforesaid, it so happend that the aforesaid Katherine, standing on the bank of the same river, suddenly and by accident slipped and fell into the river aforesaid, and there, in the water of the same river on the said seventeenth day of December in the year aforesaid at Tiddington aforesaid in the County aforesaid by accident was drowned, and not otherwise nor in other fashion came by her death. (Stratford 1921)
Observing that such delays between the date of death and the date of an inquest were quite uncommon, Fripp argued that the death must have been unusual in one way or another and that the sixteen- year-old Shakespeare may have heard about
it (Fripp 1930).
The abandoned maiden and water nymph Ophelia has become so deep a part of the modern mythical imagination that it is easy to forget her origin as a literary invention. In the old Norse saga about Amleth, on which Shakespeare’s play is ultimately based, there is a court lady who is ordered to entrap the protagonist but helps him instead. In order to turn this "honey-trap" into the abandoned Ophelia somebody had to
- kill the character
- decide to make a fuss about her death
- kill her by drowning
- raise the question of suicide
- refer to a coroner’s inquest
None of this was in the Norse legend, and there is no reason to assume that any of it was in the Ur-Hamlet either. So the most plausible assumption is that all of these innovations are Shakespeare’s. We will never know what interesting story, if any, lies behind the inquest into the death of Katherine Hamlett. But it seems to have been an oddly consequential event: the drowned "spinster" with a retroactively suggestive name turned death by drowning and the coroner’s inquest into a peculiarly fixed association in the playwright’s mind.
I wrote the original version of this blog entry about a dozen years ago with the help of Charlotte Williams. A little later I came across Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, who mentions it. It is striking that between Fripp and Bloom very little was written about this set of coincidences. One would have expected to find it in Harold Jenkins’ exhaustive Arden edition. Perhaps a kind of biographical anxiety was at work.