Shakespeare, Hamlet, Peterborough Cathedral and Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
Old Scarlett

Did you know that someone buried in the cathedral may be the inspiration for a character in a Shakespeare play? Actually, there’s more than one, as Katharine of Aragon appears in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’, based around the events of the annulment of her marriage to the eponymous king and his wedding to Anne Boleyn.

There is a less obvious candidate though for having been immortalised in one of the Bard of Stratford’s plays. One of the most quoted lines from Shakespeare’s most famous play, ‘Hamlet’, is “Alas poor Yorick!”

The image of Hamlet standing in a graveyard, holding the skull of his long-dead court jester is one that is familiar to most of us. However, it may have been inspired by real events in Peterborough…

Most readers will be familiar with the name ‘Old Scarlett’, which has been immortalised as a locally brewed real ale and the title of a newspaper column. The original ‘Old Scarlett’ was Robert Scarlett (pictured) , parish sexton and gravedigger throughout the Tudor period, who lived to the prodigious age of 98, married twice and buried Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots inside the Cathedral.

Amongst the hundreds of people that Scarlett buried during his lifetime was one ‘Edward the Foole’, a native of Crowland by birth and former court jester to King Henry VIII, laid to rest here in 1563. As was common practice at the time, and to allow for more burials in an already packed graveyard, the skeleton would have been exhumed some years later and the bones reburied in stacks.

The image of an elderly gravedigger exhuming a royal jester’s skull might have stuck in the head of a Peterborough schoolboy, John Fletcher, the son of the then Cathedral Dean. Fletcher went on to become a noted Elizabethan playwright and worked with Shakespeare, even co-writing three plays with him, including the aforementioned ‘Henry VIII’. Is it possible that Fletcher may have suggested this scene to Shakespeare? Unfortunately, ‘Hamlet’ was written between 1599 and 1601, and we have no evidence that the two men met until at least five years later, but it’s a tantalising thought nonetheless!

It’s appropriate to mention theatrical and Shakespearian connections as there are a number of great plays and productions in the spectacular surroundings of the Cathedral Precincts over the next few weeks.

Tomorrow (Friday), and Saturday, we have Antic Disposition’s evening performances of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ being performed inside the cathedral – appropriate again as the real Richard was a local boy, born and spending his childhood at Fotheringhay Castle.

On Saturday we also have two afternoon performances of Eastern Angles’ ‘Trials of Mary’ – a modern mystery play on the Cathedral Green. Finally, on July 28 we have an outdoor evening staging of the ‘Wind in the Willows’ by Boxtree Productions.

More at www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk.