The haunting of Hamlet and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet predicts essential elements of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s mourning of his larger-than-life father.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet predicts essential elements of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s mourning of his larger-than-life father. AP

This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. And as NASCAR roars into another season, many fans will note that Thursday marks the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona.

Shakespeare understood how losing a father can affect a young man who hasn’t yet reached full maturity. That, after all, is Hamlet’s story.

It’s also the story of Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of the fallen “Intimidator.” Four centuries ago, Shakespeare, himself an icon in the works, wrote about the difficulty of grieving publicly over a father who was also an iconic king, beloved by his subjects. Remarkably, the unfolding drama of Hamlet predicts essential elements of young Dale’s mourning, in the public eye, over a celebrated, larger-than-life – and, in his own way, royal – patriarch.

The unexpected, sudden loss of Hamlet’s father leaves a heavy burden on the son. The father’s ghost returns from the dead to accuse Claudius, his brother, of murdering him and commands Hamlet to kill Claudius in revenge. “The time is out of joint,” cries Hamlet. “O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right.” As much as Hamlet reviles Claudius, who has hastily married his mother after his father’s death, the mere thought of vengefully killing his uncle paralyzes him.

With a force comparable to the blow dealt to Hamlet, Dale Sr.’s early, unanticipated death gored the fan base of NASCAR, bequeathing the prospect of regenerating it to Dale Jr. Overnight, the son, who had looked up to his father as a model, inherited not only a world of grief, but the fans’ instant, unrealistic expectations that Jr. would now race at his father’s level. Never mind that Dale Sr.’s record – seven championships and 76 wins – was, in effect, out of reach to Dale Jr. or to anyone else.

Like Hamlet, Dale Jr. had the advantage of the people’s love, manifested in 13 straight NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Awards. But also like Hamlet, Dale Jr. has been slow to fulfill the mandate imposed by his father’s legacy. The pressures on young Dale’s life have included a step-parent who, like Shakespeare’s hero, has caused him no little trouble in coming to terms with Sr.’s bequest. Much as Hamlet’s stepfather repulses Hamlet, Dale Sr.’s second wife, Teresa, has alienated her stepson, who bluntly told journalist Lars Anderson, “Me and Teresa don’t see eye to eye.”

Both Hamlet and Dale Jr. hold their warrior fathers in awe, though they themselves are less aggressive. At his first appearance as a ghost, the father is clad in armor. The son, by contrast, is intellectual and reflective – a college student whose skill at fencing hardly equates to warlike valor.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., the notorious “Man in Black,” thought nothing of crushing a newscaster’s foot beneath his boot while smiling into the camera, as sportscaster Whit Watson witnessed. Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and manager Humpy Wheeler says of his long-time friend Dale Jr., “He loved his dad to death. All he ever wanted to do was drive a car, just like his father.”

But Wheeler also notes Jr.’s gentler nature. “Everybody loves Jr. because he’s so humble. He’s very nice to people.” Wheeler adds that Sr. was “type A” and Jr. is “type B.” “I’ve never seen Jr. get mad at the racetrack,” but he’d often seen Sr. mad enough “to rip the hood off a car.”

Dale Jr., now 41, has outlived Hamlet, who dies tragically, attempting to the end to fulfill his father’s will. But before his death, Shakespeare shows us Hamlet’s inner struggles, foreshadowing what Dale Jr. has undergone both on camera and off.

Cynthia Lewis is the Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Davidson College. Email: