It is standard fare to read Shakespeare at high school or so I thought – but these days high school is more about contemporary fiction. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is standard fare in the US public school curriculum. Even my twelve-year-old son has even been exposed to the Somalian civil war and the generation of lost boys through A Long Walk to Water. Fiction teaches us empathy and within a few pages of narrative storytelling, one can imagine oneself in a land far away or in places we will never visit – for they exist in the writer’s imagination.
For this reason, it is wonderful to read Maggie O Farrell’s book Hamnet which deservedly won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. The Irish author discovered that Shakespeare actually had a son named Hamnet who died when he was eleven in 1596, a few years before he wrote Hamlet. She was intrigued enough about it to the point where a literary footnote in Shakespeare’s autobiography becomes a fully fledged novel which highlights tangentially so much about his life and works.
The story forms the basis for the playwright’s life – and how the play came into being, though it is a portal into a medieval world where the playwright is only a side story in an otherwise rich narrative. Central to the story is the Pestilence or bubonic plague which engulfed Elizabethan times, not unlike the pandemic which has upended our lives.
The story is written over time with two parallel narratives – one over the course of several decades in the 1500s chronicling the life of the family and the other over the course of the parent’s marriage. Both are heart breaking as they cover the themes of life unlived and lost potential.
Central to the story is the Pestilence or bubonic plague which engulfed Elizabethan times, not unlike the pandemic which has upended our lives
The novel is set like a fable or folklore with the main protagonist as Agnes (Latin for lamb) – the daughter of a sheep farmer who lives very much between this world and the other– “There used to be a story in these parts about a girl who lived at the edge of a forest.” She is a magical creature who dwells very much in nature and the forest land: “there were creatures in there who resembled humans – wood-dwellers– who walked and talked, but had never set foot outside the forest, had lived all their lives in its leafish light, its encircling branches, its wet and tangled interior.”
This sets the backdrop for her story – how she enchants a young Latin tutor who later becomes a famous playwright, escapes her Cinderella existence from her horrible stepmother Joan and goes on to sire a daughter Suzannah and twins, Hamnet and Judith. Like many of Shakespeare’s own plays, the gender fluidity of the children is natural and part of the magic that transcends the book. The twins play tricks on people exchanging “places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other”, almost a mid summer nights dream. The surviving twin feels the loss of her twin as a phantom limb, always looking for him silently in the dark and with the heavy knowledge that her twin sacrificed his life for her. It is fitting that the playwright could reunite his twins Viola and Sebastian in 12th Night, providing a healing that would be impossible in the world of non-fiction.
Reality and fiction coalesce in this novel – depicting a world almost four centuries ago; most like the realms of magic, the afterworld and reality are interwoven. Agnes, the wife is almost a mythical creature who can predict thought and the future, and drives her husband from what appears to be a mid life crisis to discovering his own potential in London. She knows that his life belongs in London and that hers is in Stratford upon Avon. She is a creature of the woods, collecting and exploring potions and tinctures for which she is sought after. The inevitable tragedy is that it does not allow her the same insight to her own life – or those of her twins. She suffers premonitions about her children – thinking that she would have two rather than three and is convinced that the girl twin would die. Magic again plays a role
when the boy wills himself to exchange places with the girl – almost as it to fulfill a prophesy. The father is missing – he is nameless and faceless during most of the novel and written about in the third person though clearly experiences grief in his own way. Readers are asked to assume his identity as a person rather than a famous literary figure.
Many of the descriptions bring to life the life that must have existed during those days though modernized in use of language – one is transported to descriptions of life, birth, sickness and death which are vivid and recognizable yet clearly belong to another age and time. And yet it is grief and loss which is so compelling. The heartbreaking descriptions of losing a child, how loss is felt acutely alone and can create a sea between parents who grieve and how it transforms people. Each of the characters is transformed by the loss of Hamnet – how he would have grown up, his unmet potential as a man, how to bring him back to the world even for a moment. For that, one must this book for
it propels you back to Shakespeare’s life and by doing so transforms how we think of his own work.