What’s in a name? According to sources, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were fairly interchangeable in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare’s wife’s name is now better known as the moniker of an Oscar winning actress, but she was referred to as Agnes, rather than Anne, in her father’s will. Maggie O’Farrell, in her fictionalised account of the death of the couple’s child, chooses to use Agnes and Hamnet to signify the mother and son, and the bard’s name is never mentioned once in this story of his only son’s demise.
There is such scholarly discord surrounding Shakespeare, that the fate of the historically verified William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s off-spring is ripe for the picking, and speculation surrounding the family’s bucolic life anyone’s for the taking. The story begins with the young boy’s mad dash around the family home, in search of his grandparents, his mother, his aunt, anyone to help his twin sister Judith. She has become very ill, very quickly and he knows instinctively that what she’s suffering from is no ordinary ailment.
The next chapter introduces his parents just before they meet, thus beginning two parallel stories running concurrently in Part One. The first continues with the few short days of Judith’s illness, the miniscule attentions to detail that come to the fore in times of great crisis, a quite fast-paced flurry of initial disbelief quickly becoming focused business mode, the business being the immediate health of the child. The second is more languid, dreamier, set years earlier as the teenaged tutor romances his pupil’s eccentric older sister.
It’s the wife, the mother who ties the two stories together the most profoundly. It’s her story more than anyone’s; she is the strange girl whose mother appeared as if from nowhere to enchant a successful farmer, who then leaves the world as jarringly as she first emerged in it following the birth of Agnes’ brother. She is the oddball young woman who keeps a falcon, who stirs the attention of a scholarly young man and becomes irrevocably entwined in his life. She is the country woman who can feel the emotions of others by touch, and who townsfolk turn to when they’re in search of cures and potions. She is the mother of three, who only every expected two.
Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful, poetic prose perfectly encapsulates this story mired in a speculative history, but also superstition and folklore. There’s little humour, bar some petty, everyday needling between siblings here and there; it’s a story concerned with little lives and their impacts. I wondered why Shakespeare’s name was never mentioned; it could be to reduce the icon, the legend, to his original identity as first son of a glove maker, then scholarly husband, eventually actor and playwright wealthy enough to buy land and houses for his family. It’s Agnes here who has a more otherworldly presence, but whose almost supernatural gifts fail her.
Agnes has great faith in what nature can tell her, and is in tune with her dreams and predictions. But as much reverence is given to her concoctions and intuitions it is without sentimentality that the most significant are revealed to be falsehoods. This is not a comfort read about grief, but a raw examination laid bare. All three children are beloved by their parents and grandparents, the pestilence that takes one cursed by them. Each bereaved family member gets on with their lives as best they can, the mother going through the motions until she can cope again, the father converting it into art.
Hamnet is a sublime study of familial bonds and the inside workings of a marriage, but it’s ultimately an exceptional account of grief and a magnificent reassurance of every life having great value, regardless how long it was or how much it accomplished. A boy of eleven is struck down with a disease he ‘takes’ from his sister in order to save her, thus giving birth to arguably the best play ever written. Not only that, the sparse facts surrounding his real life has sparked studies, plays and this remarkable book. Even if a life isn’t recorded in the history books, if it ended prematurely, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t significant.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on 06 05 20