Judi Dench’s Shakespeare connection: Who Do You Think You Are?

Dame Judi Dench

For years now Who Do You Think You Are has been great TV, but the episode featuring Dame Judi Dench on 19 October 2021 was outstanding. The programme uncovers aspects of the family history of celebrities and has covered everything from destitution to connections with royalty. This one, though, revealed that one of Judi Dench’s ancestors probably saw a performance by Will Kemp at Elsinore, the castle setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It was a complicated story, starting with Dame Judi’s already-known Irish heritage. One of her distant ancestors married and went to Copenhagen in Denmark and through this ancestor she is related to the great astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In an age before modern scientific method, Brahe’s great contribution was to make accurate astronomical observations that could then be used by other scientists. One of these was Johannes Kepler, most famous for defining the laws of planetary motion,  who worked as Brahe’s assistant. This link alone would have made an interesting programme, but there was a lot more.

Astronomer Tycho Brahe, 1586

Brahe came from a prominent Danish family, ensuring that he received an excellent education and giving him enough influence with King Frederick II to be granted funds for an observatory where he could collect data. This was set up in the mid 1570s and attracted visitors from around Europe. But the reason why Brahe was part of Judi Dench’s story was really to do with two of his relatives, who feature on this engraving of Brahe published in 1586 showing him surrounded by the names and heraldic shields of his noble relations.

Among them are two families, Guldesteren and Rosenkrans, names familiar to anyone who knows Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In the many sources for the play, the two devious courtiers who attempt to betray the protagonist are not named, and when Shakespeare came to give them names in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the only characters with genuinely Danish names.

Does the picture itself help to solve the question of how Shakespeare arrived at these names? Did he know the picture? If so, how? The image has been known for many years. Harold Jenkins in his 1982 Arden edition of Hamlet refuses to get over-excited at the possibilities. He thinks it isn’t necessary for Shakespeare to have known about Brahe and his work, and it’s unlikely that Shakespeare saw the engraving in the house of English astronomer Thomas Digges as some have suggested. He notes that both were common names: several members of both families attended the court of Frederick II, and one in ten of the noblemen who attended the coronation of his successor Christian IV bore one of the names.

The programme then put forward another way in which Shakespeare might have heard the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

During the 1580s English performers went on tour to the Continent and the Earl of Leicester’s Men, including William Kemp, accompanied Leicester on his diplomatic mission to the Low Countries and Denmark in 1585-6. The document noting Kemp’s appearance before King Frederick II at court still exists and indicates that the King paid the players himself. This is not a new discovery but it is still thrilling to see the handwritten entry.

William Kemp

A few years later Kemp was employed as the Clown in Shakespeare’s company, and Shakespeare wrote the part of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and possibly the part of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for him. Kemp might have told stories of his foreign adventures in 1585 including the names of courtiers, and Shakespeare remembered them when he started to work on his own Hamlet story. By the late 1590s though there was a falling out and Kemp left the company. Perhaps Shakespeare no longer wanted to write plays in which Kemp would be the star of the show. It’s referred to in Hamlet itself in the Prince’s advice to the players.

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too. (3.2.40-5)

Finally it was suggested that as Judi Dench’s ancestor was a lady in waiting at the court of King Frederick at Elsinore she almost certainly attended one of Kemp’s performances.

It’s quite a story. I read one comment complaining that the programme misrepresents historical research by making it look easy, and while this is undoubtedly true, it does a fantastic job of exploring the less obvious treasures held by our Library and Archive Collections. I’d like to congratulate too the archivists who explain the significance of documents and images for the lay person, whose pleasure in sharing the stories is always delightful. And I’m in awe of the amazing researchers who chase up obscure links and the writers who pull all the elements together to make a compelling piece of TV, in this case covering over 400 years.

If you have a British TV licence the whole thing is available on IPlayer here:

But if not, Who Do You Think You Are’s YouTube channel has clips from past episodes. The following four clips are all there:

The Irish connection

From the Danish National Archives

Elsinore and the Danish Royal family

William Kemp and Shakespeare

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