“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet: Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020 by [Maggie O'Farrell]

This is an original and inventive take on Shakespeare’s relations with his family, whom history has it lived in Stratford while he was for the most part working in London. The playwright is described as the father of Hamnet, the husband of Agnes (better known to us as Anne), the son of John: in never naming him as Shakespeare, Maggie O’Farrell creates the freedom to take all the dramatic licence she chooses to interpret his life.

The chapter alternates between two different periods of time. Firstly, we meet Hamnet, bright eleven-year-old with a tendency to daydream, in search of an adult to look after his frail twin sister Judith who has been taken ill suddenly. Then we are switched fifteen years or so back in time to his father, an unfulfilled youth, bullied by his father, a Stratford glove-maker who has lost his good reputation through shady deals. Forced to work as a Latin tutor to help pay his father’s debts, he becomes infatuated with Agnes, an intriguing older woman who flies a kestrel hawk and is skilled in the use of herbs to cure ailments. She in turn sees something remarkable in him, the dilemma being that he can only realise his talent as a playwright in London, a place where she cannot live, ostensibly because the plague-ridden capital is too risky for Judith’s fragile health, but in reality because Agnes is only at ease in a natural world of trees, wildlife and herbs.

This is essentially an exploration of the nature of grief and how people are affected by it, with Agnes the central character. Hamnet’s role is to be the source of that grief. The back cover blurb in the paperback edition reveals the boy’s fate, perhaps on the assumption that it is common knowledge that Shakespeare’s only son died, raising the tantalising question of whether, and if so how, this tragic fact led to the production of a play called Hamlet only a few years afterwards.

Some may find the slow pace and minute detail tedious at times – as in the description of the layout of John’s house in the opening chapter, but this serves to give strong visual images of a vividly imagined Elizabethan world, as lived by ordinary people, which must have involved a good deal of research. Similarly, the focus on Agnes’s psychic powers – her ability to divine so much about a person simply by pressing the muscle between thumb and forefinger – may not appeal. Ironically, when it comes to foreseeing the future for her twins, these powers let her down. Yet, combined with a style which is often reminiscent of a folktale, the supernatural element recreates a sense of the superstition which dominated people’s lives in Tudor times, in the absence of a scientific way of explaining their situation. The presence of ghosts is easier to imagine when death is so common, and all this chimes with the magical themes running through Shakespeare’s plays including of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The style is often expressive and poetic, as in the case of Anne’s hawk as first seen by “Shakespeare”: “Its stance is hunched, shrugged as if assailed by rain”. Descriptions are complemented with sharp dialogues and thoughts which reveal rounded personalities: Agnes’s surprisingly supportive brother Bartholomew, her stroppy teenage daughter Susanna, her mother-in-law Mary with whom a mutual understanding grows despite their different natures – and moments of insight and humour in all the sadness.

My main reservation is that moving passages too often seem overwritten, although I feel guilty in saying this, after reading of the acute sickness and brushes with death which the author herself and her own children have suffered. I also found the contrast somewhat jarring between her “literary” passages and those with a child’s story book repetition and turn of phrase: “Three heavy knocks to the door…..boom, boom, boom”. Admittedly, when Anne’s husband returns home unexpectedly after a long absence, and “booms in his biggest, loudest voice” this reflects his other extrovert life on the stage of the London Globe.

Overall, it is an absorbing, thought-provoking read, with even the foreknowledge of the intolerable loss of an appealing child one wants to see survive made bearable in time by the reminder or realisation that inevitable sorrow and joy are inextricably linked in life, in which all things pass.

Along with “The Plague” by Camus, this is a timely book to read during or in the aftermath of a pandemic. Perhaps recent experiences make us more attuned to the feelings of past generations who had to live with a vulnerability to disease and untimely death which we thought we had overcome.

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