“…To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
There have been centuries of speculation and scrutiny regarding William Shakespeare’s state of mind when he wrote these haunting verses. The play Hamlet was written in the time spanning the Elizabethan and Stuart eras of English history, which was a period of relative peace and harmony. Thus, historians theorise that the evocative and poignant verses most probably emanate from a deep personal tragedy.
Considering the facts that Shakespeare is hailed as the greatest writer in the English language, and that his popularity was not posthumous, it is perplexing that most details regarding his family and relationships have been shrouded in mystery. Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book Hamnet, though a work of fiction, sheds some light on the dynamics and personal tragedies that transpired within the playwright’s family.
The book’s namesake is Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of 11, and for whom the play Hamlet was allegedly written. While no record exists as to the reason, recurrent conjecture places the child’s death around the time when England was in the grip of the bubonic plague — or pestilence, as it was referred to at the time.
The main protagonist of Hamnet is Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, whom O’Farrell renames Agnes. We know that she was eight years her husband’s senior and came from a family that enjoyed a higher financial and social status than him. Their marriage produced three children: a daughter Susannah and twins Hamnet and Judith. Most commentaries and literary works depict Hathaway in a negative light, ranging from a tireless shrew to a manipulative cradle snatcher, but none of these allegations have been substantiated in any manner and thus we are left to envisage our own romantic notions.
This is where we relinquish our preconceived ideas and let O’Farrell take us along on a captivating journey. The author weaves a beautiful, heart-wrenching story surrounding Agnes and her children. Their individual personalities and personal dynamics intuitively bound off the pages and settle effortlessly in the reader’s imagination. O’Farrell writes the character of Agnes as strong-willed and wise, with full agency over her mind and body. Although a rural woman of the time, she is not portrayed as oppressed and undermined and, in her depiction, the feminist undertones in O’Farrell’s writing come across clear as day, without being gratuitous. Agnes is strong and tenacious, and kind and nurturing in equal measure. She cares deeply for her family and the loss of Hamnet, her only son, shatters her irreparably.
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a historical novel attempts to take us inside the family life of the greatest writer in the English language
Meanwhile, the great Shakespeare works and lives in London, earning much success and recognition. His theatre group is enjoying the Golden Age of English history, when literature and poetry flourished. On account of their separate living situation, many historians postulate a fair amount of discord in their marriage; however this theory is negated as he visited his family for long periods of time and chose to spend his last days at his family home in Stratford-upon-Avon rather than in London.
The bubonic plague is the indubitable villain in this story. Obliterating a quarter of the population of London and a third of Europe’s population, it destroys the rich and the poor with equal ferocity. The thriving playhouses are forced to shut their doors frequently as the Black Death ravages the country and life comes to a shattering halt.
Hamnet’s twin sister Judith gets sick first and is carefully tended to by the family. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all, life slips away from her brother’s grasp. It is said that, even though word was hastily sent out regarding the child’s dire condition, Shakespeare couldn’t make it back in time. We are not privy to the actual, historical details of this incident, but as a parent, one doesn’t need to really imagine what emotional and mental turmoil must have ensued when, upon his arrival, he finds his son deceased.
In O’Farrell’s book, Agnes describes the sound he makes as “that of an animal forced to bear a great weight.” This sound stays with her, and she can recall its exact “pitch and timbre” till the day she dies. It is speculated that most of Shakespeare’s works prior to this devastating event were comedies or tragicomedies. Hamlet — as a name it was often used interchangeably with Hamnet — was written to honour his son and the torturous, foreboding nature of the play was a reflection of Shakespeare’s anguished soul.
Reading Hamnet during our current state of uncertainty and lockdown gives one a better insight and perspective into how it must have been to live during the time of the plague. With no technology and media outlets at their disposal, humanity must have truly felt the full menace of isolation and solitude. Praise be to O’Farrell for tackling heavy subjects such as death, disease and familial dynamics with skill and sensitivity. The reader lives moment by moment, immersed in the complex, layered characters she has created and their seemingly ordinary lives. Yet, in this ordinary story we witness an extraordinary love of a mother for her child, of a bereft sibling yearning for her twin, of a father unable to protect his son from the Black Death.
O’Farrell’s writing is exceptional and wins us over from the very first page. No wonder, then, that Hamnet has been shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The author creates vivid, verdant landscapes coupled with muted, suffering characters, but there are no heightened dramatics, no exaggerated emotions. Hamnet, at its heart, is a story of a family’s bereavement at the loss of a child, showing how one ill-fated event can cause an entire family to collapse irrevocably. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction will love this book for its engrossing narrative and the masterful prose.
By Maggie O’Farrell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 9th, 2020