On Aug. 11, 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, was buried. He was 11 years old.
Almost nothing more is known about this child’s brief life, and how his death impacted his older sister, his twin sister and his parents is impossible to gauge. No diaries, letters, sonnets, or records have survived to give us a clue. There are a few tantalising references in Shakespeare’s plays to the anguish of grieving fathers, the recurrence of twins and, of course, a tragedy called ‘Hamlet’ (a variant of Hamnet), but nothing concrete enough to be certain. It is this absence of authoritative knowledge that provides Maggie O’ Farrell an entry point into her novel Hamnet, and let’s not forget that it is a novel but, what a beautiful, but devastating, lyrically rich novel it is.
O’ Farrell changes certain names of the Shakespeare clan – too many ‘Joans’, for instance, would have simply been too confusing for the reader, and Anne is known as Agnes, the name her father gave her in his will. Shakespeare is never named, known only as the husband, or the father. The place-name Stratford upon Avon is cleverly avoided, but location is firmly set by the street names, and the narrative sets us firmly in a 16th century England where the bubonic plague has arrived in Warwickshire. It is principally, a study of grief, written by O’ Farrell in a time when our own contemporary world is seeing hundreds of thousands die in one of its own deadly plagues.
“What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children's hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”
In the centre of the book, there is a chapter that almost has the rhythm of ‘The House That Jack Built’ that momentarily arrests the story of Shakespeare and his family, transporting the reader to the Mediterranean, to begin a gripping lesson in 16th century epidemiology, then, as now, commerce and transport being the engines of disease. A glassmaker in Venice, a monkey in Alexandria, a cabin boy from the Isle of Man, a ship’s cat and several rats all playing their part in the intricate chain of transmission as infected fleas jump from body to body, sowing illness across Europe. It’s a fascinating and horrific demonstration of the same forces now driving a pandemic almost 400 years later. We may have better medical terminology and equipment, but our frantic missteps have at times sounded like echoes of the Renaissance. They had their beak-masked doctors prescribing onions and dried toad, whilst we have heard world leaders nattering on about light and bleach. O’Farrell isn’t merely creating a diversion from the story; she is setting the context that will allow the reader to understand the full impact of the helplessness of parents faced with the suffering of a child and, ultimately death.
The story belongs to Agnes, a skilled woman married to a restless man whose talents are more imaginative than practical. Constrained by the demands of motherhood and the limited opportunities of the time, she must exercise her influence indirectly and stealthily. The moves she makes to keep her children healthy and her spouse happy represent the hidden sacrifices that countless women have made, without thanks or credit, to support their husbands’ ambitions. That delicate negotiation grows far more perilous when the couple endures the death of a child and discover, as all those who go through that experience discover, that grief and love manifest itself differently from individual to individual. Agnes is stripped of all her confidence, her anguish bringing her to a place of deep depression and neglect of herself, others and her surroundings. Her husband secretes himself in a tiny writing chamber many miles from home, throwing his energies into his work and pouring his sorrow into the characters of his plays. A comedy, then a history, and then a tragedy whose protagonist bears the name of their lost son.
Yet, it is when the novel pivots to acknowledge that the husband too is devastated by the loss, that the way is paved for transformation and future hope to begin. Agnes, appalled that her husband has defiled their son’s name, bravely ventures into the alien city world of theatres, actors and plays that he inhabits. It takes courage to persevere to understand, but Agnes slowly recognises that the play is not an insult to Hamnet’s memory, but a rich exploration of madness, grief, love, family, and so much more.
O’ Farrell writes in a gloriously descriptive manner that makes the reader feel transported to sixteenth century. I read Hamnet in two days, finding it difficult to leave for any length of time. There are many books written about Shakespeare, very few about his wife, and whilst this isn’t biography, it vividly brings to life (and death) the world she inhabited; the customs, folklore, courtesies and expectations. Within the covers, we find searing details of giving birth, preparing a body for burial, growing an Elizabethan garden, mixing tinctures and elixirs, brewing, falconry and a wealth of other things pertinent to the 16th century lifestyle, but some things never change. The ribbon of fierce, atavistic maternal love that causes any mum to fight for her suffering child, by whatever means possible, and that changes irrevocably when that child cannot be saved, transcends all centuries, customs and traditions, and it is that that O’ Farrell captures so incredibly well.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.