Whether we like it or not, at school we are all introduced to (or forced to suffer through, whichever way you look at it!) William Shakespeare’s writing. I confess, I love a good Shakespeare play but, until recently, I had never really stopped to think about the man behind the works. Too often, long-dead authors can become dehumanised mysterious figures of the past, remembered only through the legacy they left behind. Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for the SCAN book club made me fall in love with the famous Bard in a new way. Writing from a range of perspectives within Shakespeare’s extended family, O’Farrell paints an extraordinary picture of Elizabethan England and the life and times of England’s favourite playwright.
The novel is centred around the untimely demise of Shakespeare’s beloved son, Hamnet, from the plague. Through her intimate depiction of the events leading up to the tragedy (including the plague’s sinister journey to England), the family’s final moments with their son and their grief in the aftermath, O’Farrell brings a humanity to the Shakespeare family that transgresses the boundaries of time. Their struggles do not seem so far away from our own in the modern-day and these ‘historical figures’ are effortlessly brought to life in new and imaginative ways.
Woven throughout the text alongside the main narrative through a series of flashbacks is a quiet and understated yet beautiful love story between William and his future wife Anne. I was in hysterics at Will being quite the ‘lad’ and his frankly pathetic attempts at flirting! I found myself thinking “Seriously Will? You’re meant to be the wordsmith – you can do better than that!”. Through this interweaving of the past and present of Shakespeare’s life, we get to know the man behind the mask; he is a young man desperate to escape his abusive father’s shadow and forge his own path, fed up with his small-town life and yearning to explore the world. We see Shakespeare through many complex guises: the scholar, the teacher, the writer, the son, the father, and the husband.
Who else but Shakespeare would be rebellious enough to marry Stratford’s resident witch? Based on the true fact that Anne was suspected of practising witchcraft (probably due to all single women with green fingers in Shakespeare’s time being regarded with suspicion), O’Farrell also explores the hostility created by the match and the vicious rumours surrounding Anne. By portraying Anne as genuinely a ‘witch’ – if you count making herbal remedies and being slightly psychic as ‘witchcraft’ – we get an interesting insight into the way rumours are blown out of proportion in small rural communities. We are also able to glimpse where Shakespeare may have got some of his inspiration for his more fantastical ideas and brilliant feminist commentary.
O’Farrell creates a beautiful landscape in which characters thrive and the late 1500s are brought to life in vivid and vibrant technicolour. The book is an extraordinary retelling of Shakespeare’s life in all its beautiful, simple humanity and promise of his future legacy. However, we learn that, in the end, it is not his legacy that matters but what he did with it, as we see the wonderful words that pay tribute to and immortalise his son in Hamlet. Witty, well-researched and expertly told, Hamnet was exactly the kind of book I needed in my life and I would definitely recommend it.