Daily Recco, May 4: Meet Hamnet, Shakespeare's son

Maggie O'Farrell stays away from Shakespeare's celebrity in her book. He is not even mentioned. The principal character of the novel is his wife, Anne (also spelt Agnes) Hathaway.

 |  3-minute read |   04-05-2021
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The month that went by — April — has indeed been the cruellest month for India, as we grapple with a ferocious second wave of Covid-19. With grief and pain all around us, our recommendation for today is a book that explores grief with great tenderness and beauty, showing how loss can tear people apart, but also bring them close.

Hamnet, a work of historical fiction by Maggie O'Farrell published last year (2020), is the story of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of 11, possibly of the plague. Very little is known about the personal life of arguably the world’s most famous playwright. A prolific author, Shakespeare wrote nothing autobiographical, and his works never contain explicit references to his own life. Yet, a few years after the death of his son, Shakespeare wrote one of his most brilliant tragedies, and named it ‘Hamlet’, which is an alternative spelling of the name ‘Hamnet’.


O'Farrell in her book stays away from Shakespeare’s celebrity. In fact, he is not even named in the book. The principal character of the novel is his wife, Anne (also spelt Agnes) Hathaway.

And through Agnes’s remarkable perspective, which seems to shift between this world and the supernatural, O'Farrell paints a haunting, moving picture of a parent losing her child, of a grieving mother confronted with the grief of her surviving children, of how that grief threatens to overwhelm her marriage, and of her eventual understanding of her husband’s way of coping with his loss.

Read the book for its exploration of grief that is both devastating and uplifting. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns,” the book says. “This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. ... It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.” Another passage goes: “...The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way."

Read the book for its lyrical prose, for its thrumming vigour and ethereal aloofness, for a narrative style that is as commanding when describing the everyday details of home life as when it soars into the world of ‘witchcraft’. Those familiar with the plays of Shakespeare will find subtle nods to themes he often used – a young woman who can be mistaken for a man, twins who switch places, the presence of the supernatural that awes, enlivens but is never absurd.

Read it for its meticulous tracing across countries of the flea that killed Hamnet, so relevant in the infected times we are living in.

But also, read the book for its centre-staging of a woman whom history, written by the male pen, has been happy to overlook or ridicule. When they got married, Shakespeare was 18 and his wife was 26, and they were already expecting their first child. Based on scant evidence, speculation abounds that their domestic life was not a happy one, that a teenager William was ‘snagged’ by a peasant woman incapable of understanding his genius. In his will, Shakespeare had left his wife ‘his second-best bed’, which is cited as further proof of his lack of fondness for her.

O'Farrell gives Agnes personality, dignity, and agency, she shows how the marriage was in fact a climbdown for Agnes – a woman with a sizeable dowry who had chosen to marry a “feckless, tradeless” teenager. O'Farrell writes a beautiful love story of the playwright and the peasant woman, showing all the vulnerabilities and yet the robustness of true love between individuals very different from each other. And without making a direct reference to it, she also offers an explanation for the “second-best bed”.

Also Read: The Dutch House, a story of the places that shape us


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