Genre: Historical Novel
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
A homesick little cabin boy befriends a monkey in the port of Alexandria…magical little glass beads from a famed Venetian glassmaker are picked up on the ship’s stop at Venice….in a faraway village in England a little girl plays with the sparkling glass beads from Venice and falls ill…all of these disparate events coalesce together as a panicked little boy confronts his twin sister’s rising fever with swellings or “buboes” appearing under her skin. The fate of this little boy, Hamnet, is sealed by the unconscious actions of another half a world away. Hamnet’s father, ill-suited to any trade in his hometown, makes a living writing plays in London. His mother, a gifted healer, desperately tries every remedy she knows to save her daughter from the dreaded course of the illness. Eleven-year-old Hamnet decides to fool Death by playing the trick of trading places that he and his twin, Judith, often used to fool family members. He lays down in her sickbed with her, and his plan succeeds. Four years later, his name is immortalized in the longest play written by his playwright father. In the late 1500s, Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable names in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
A historical novel, by its nature, cannot deliver a surprise ending as its ending is already known. The intersection of diligent research and consummate artistry to recreate a bygone era with authenticity, while creating a compelling story, is the measure of success for the historical novelist. Maggie O’Farrell has succeeded quite spectacularly on both measures in resurrecting the little-known family of a famous man from over four centuries of obscurity. She weaves a tale of a passionate courtship, a marriage that faced its challenges and a young family struggling to find its footing. A woman relegated to ridicule by history as the recipient of the infamous “second-best bed” bequest is the central character of this luminous novel, her deep reserves of strength holding her young family together as she balances the roles of a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister, and healer. Two timelines 15 years apart alternate consistently, with the first timeline bringing the reader to the unfolding events in the second timeline. Though the story is set in the background of the plague, the novel triumphs in making readers walk the cobbled streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, the many different smells of leather, of whittawing, fleece and wool, herbs, roots, and weeds creating sensory details that bring alive names that were mere footnotes in history.
The first timeline introduces a listless 18-year-old Latin tutor, bullied by his glover (glove-maker) father into teaching two farm boys the intricacies of the language. “What use is his education? Where has it gotten him? Teaching farm-boys Latin verbs they will never use,” he wonders and looks out of the window. He is transfixed by a vision – a woman in man’s clothes emerging from the edge of the forest, a long plait swinging down to her waist, a falcon on her shoulders. He becomes obsessed. She turns out to be the eldest daughter of the farmer’s family, an odd creature who roamed the woods, understood animals and plants, and was possessed of unusual powers. Eight years older than him, she senses something out of the ordinary in the “wageless, useless, beardless wastrel” and returns his passion. The marriage brings together a woman from a farm outside of Stratford into the town and into a house subject to the violent moods of her father-in-law. They have a narrow addition attached to the main house and she sets about creating a home in both parts. Daughter Susanna is born six months into the marriage, followed by twins Judith and Hamnet in a few years. She sees her husband sinking into depression, living life as an errand-boy for his controlling father and contrives to send him to London on pretext of expanding the family business.
The second timeline runs fifteen years after the first, with the family settled into a routine. The Latin tutor finally finds success in London with his plays, while the rest of the family were forced to continue living in Stratford, unable to fulfill his dream of being together as the London air was harmful to Judith’s delicate health. The children in their innocence, looked forward to the time when the playhouses were shut down in London due to the pestilence, and their father could be in Stratford with them. Hamnet’s discovery of Judith’s illness and the desperate days of battling the inevitable doom culminates in the shrouded little body being carried by the grief-numbed father on its final journey. With time, the shattered family members eventually find avenues to channel their sorrow, the father returns to London, but the mother sinks under the weight of her unbearable anguish.
The father writes to say his company is having great success with a new play, a comedy, and the Queen was much diverted by it. “A comedy?” the mother asks.
Scholars pore over scant information available on events in Shakespeare’s life and speculate about their influence on his writings. Maggie O’Farrell’s “idle speculation” (in her words) will most assuredly send her readers on numerous trips to Google. Did his own Judith and Hamnet influence the creation of Viola and Sebastian? The playwright had the power to construct a happy ending when the lost Sebastian is reunited with his twin, Viola; the father had no recourse but to live with his grief. “Twelfth Night”, written a year after Hamnet’s death, is considered Shakespeare’s last truly joyous play: all of his light comedies have been dated to the period before Hamnet’s death when he was the father of three young children.
Did his grief influence the writing of his greatest tragedy? Though the story was well-known in Scandinavian lore, and the interchangeable names Hamlet/Hamnet were quite common in his time, Maggie O’Farrell’s imagination explores the excruciating period following Hamnet’s death in rich and sensitive detail. As the mother spends days and years unable to restore herself, her attention is brought to a London playbill. Her unschooled eyes cannot read most of it but fastens on some familiar words: her husband’s name, the word “tragedie” and in the middle, in the largest letters, the name of her son.
How can her son’s name be on a London playbill? He died, not four years ago. He is himself, not a play, not a piece of paper, not something to be spoken of or performed or displayed. He died. Her husband knows this. She cannot understand.
Hamnet would have been an absorbing read at any time but makes for a more meaningful read during our pandemic-ravaged reality. The “pestilence” as the bubonic plague was referred to at the time, was a looming threat for over a hundred and fifty years, carving its way around the globe via trading ships and claiming millions of lives. Understanding of the disease was rudimentary, but the contagiousness was painfully clear. To combat the obvious connection between ships laden with blackened corpses and spread of disease in the general population, sailors were initially kept isolated for a period of thirty days “a trentino” that was later increased to forty days “a quarantine”. It is natural to draw parallels and contrasts between “then and now”; what is unchanged is the human cost and the unique nature of grief.
Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man alive, and the father dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own. She sees he has done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own.
She finally understands her husband’s grief.
The ghost turns his head towards her, as he prepares to exit the scene. He is looking straight at her, meeting her gaze, as he speaks his final words: