Hazel McHaffie

Hamnet

Hamnet

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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In it together

In a week where the fallibility of the UK government has reached a new low, I’ve been revelling in the human face of celebrity.

What a fabulous opportunity! I’ve been at the virtual Hay Book Festival – one of the most famous literary events in the world. Outside the dreaded virus might be lurking, political storm clouds may be gathering, but I was squirrelled away in my study, with no one to irritate me or distract me, before me a parade of authors and orators and experts, speaking from their own homes, to an international audience of hundreds.

And not unnaturally, frequent mentions of Covid-19, the very thing that has made it impossible to hold the real event in its normal location in Wales. Indeed, many of the events were specifically about the virus.

Regurgitating the science or philosophy would send you to sleep, but what struck me was that, against the background of their natural habitats, the speakers seemed more real, more authentic; they shared intimacies about their families, their lives, which somehow brought them closer to us.

So, for example, best-selling novelist, Maggie O’Farrell, was talking about her latest book, Hamnet, a fictionalised story woven around the life and death and memory of William Shakespeare‘s son of that name, who died probably/possibly of the Black Death (the most deadly epidemic in recorded human history), aged just 11. Obviously parallels with our situation today, and Maggie confessed she related very much to Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. She had needed to wait until her own son passed the age of 11, before completing the scenes of Anne sitting at Hamnet’s bedside, watching him die, laying him out for burial, mourning him for the rest of her life. Knowing that at any moment Maggie’s own children might erupt into the room, gave her responses both piquancy and urgency. And I loved the picture of her hiding in the Wendy House in the garden for a couple of hours to get some work done during lockdown.

Former Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, with yards of qualifications and distinctions, gave the special John Maddox lecture about anti microbial resistance. It could have been way above the heads of most people, but she came across as warm and understanding, with a lovely sense of humour. She shared her palatial study with us, but took all the pretentiousness out of it by showing how her husband had hacked off more of her hair than she’d requested. And her slogan: ‘work together and wash your hands’ – had a ring of truth and realism that the official messages from the Downing Street podiums often lack.

A message from this pandemic which came across clearly was: work together towards a kinder fairer world. I came away with a sense of a shared strategy, a world-wide community, that no mere political aide flouting the rules could dent.

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