Hazel McHaffie


Having just been to Stratford upon Avon, this seemed like the perfect time to read Maggie O’Farrell‘s award-winning novel, Hamnet, based on the lives and tragedies of the Shakespeare family. Though I’ve heard the author talk about it at various events, and read reviews, the book was not at all what I was expecting.

Knowing the names of the real-life family members, I was discombobulated by the  pseudonyms they’re given in this story. Hamnet is synonymous with Hamlet – OK, I can cope with that. But Anne Hathaway, renamed Agnes? Though I understand the logic behind it, I’m still not entirely convinced by this strategy. And given that the chapters dot between time-frames, it took a while to be confident of which generation we were dealing with.

Will Shakespeare himself is never named; he’s variously the Latin tutor, son, husband, father. He’s an educated grammar school/oratory boy, well used to brutality, subject to dark moods, who only finds his real inner self and fulfilment in play-writing and acting in London.

The central figure is his wife – unschooled but with a wisdom beyond formal education. She’s portrayed as an other-wordly soul with special powers, strange inexplicable insights and foreknowledge, an affinity with nature, a frail veil between her and the world of the dead. A sorceress, a forest sprite, of another world, not quite belonging in this one.

When Shakespeare first catches sight of her with a falcon on her arm, he mistakes her for a boy, and instantly we see shadows of the famous strategies the real playwright wove into his plots. Seen again in their twins, Judith and Hamnet, who have a unique bond – changing places and clothes, hoodwinking people into thinking each is the other, even in death.

The depiction of the plague is shiveringly realistic. The terror striking into the hearts of families with the gruesome beak-masked physicians, the telltale buboes, the death toll, the unknown elements echoing in our own pandemic five centuries later. But back then with recourse to nothing better than herbal remedies or dried toads!

However, for me, the greatest strength is in O’Farrell’s poignant depiction of a mother’s grief. The unfathomable despair and guilt. The impossibility of folding the sheet over Hamnet’s lifeless body, closing him off for ever from her sight. The isolation that separates parents, alienates relatives, preys on the lives of siblings, changes irrevocably what is important in life. Brilliantly written.

Indeed the whole book is a delight to read, but hauntingly sad, bringing to life a hitherto-unknown young lad whose early death was the inspiration for one of the most well known plays in English Literature.

PS. Just so I don’t leave you on a downbeat, how about this fun description:
… the headless pheasant on the table, scaled legs fastidiously drawn up, as if the bird is worried about getting its feet muddy, even though it happens to be decapitated and very much dead.

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