Yes, you should probably read this because it is lyrical and lovely and is the story of Shakespeare’s dying son Hamnet, who he (apparently) honours as Hamlet, in a round-about way which may be stretching the truth somewhat.
O’Farrell writes passages of such amazingly close detail that I felt my heartbeat slow in the reading. She spends one whole page describing a woman walking two steps. It’s extraordinary.
If you’re after a story about Shakespeare, beware. I waited the entire book to get a feeling for the man and his coming of age, but this is not a plot line. It is a story around him, set during his ‘lost’ years so mostly imaginative speculation, and Shakespeare lurks outside the story like click-bait. We know it’s him, but we never really get to him. O’Farrell imagines the lives of his family, a background he leaves behind. It’s like reading a story about Princess Di’s nanny. But it’s bloody Shakespeare and that’s why I’m reading the book.
The story mainly follows Shakespeare’s wife, here called Agnes rather than the more usual Anne, and William Shakespeare is referred to as “Agnes’s husband”.
History tells us little about the real Anne, so O’Farrell is free to flesh out Agnes into the cliche of a herb-gathering beguiling woman on the fringe of witchcraft: she wafts through meadows and feels futures by pinching the skin between a finger and thumb and gives birth alone in a forest and makes lots of poultices. She also tells us about her dreams. Perhaps we readers are supposed to understand them, or perhaps this is just to reinforce her bewitching otherness. “…she is dreaming of an egg, a large egg, at the bottom of a clear stream; she is standing on a bridge, looking down at it, at the currents, which are forced around its contours.” No idea what that means.
The story switches viewpoints often. One plaintive view is by the boy Hamnet who finds his twin sister near death with plague and, often interrupted forward and back in time, we walk through a couple of weeks with him in minute detail. The jumpy narrative is deliberately unsettling. Woven in is Shakespeare’s courting of Agnes, their early marriage, the later years when Agnes’s husband is away getting rich and famous and he comes home to the country occasionally smelling of other women. Not sure how Agnes can smell the other women over the patina of shit and mud of a week on the road, but she has these uncanny abilities.
She can predict the future with detail, for example: “Edmond will, Agnes sees, grow up sanguine and happy; he will follow his eldest brother, inevitably, unasked, largely unnoticed. He won’t live long but will live well: women will like him; he will father numerous children during his short life. The last person he will think of, just before he dies, will be Eliza. Agnes’s husband will pay for his funeral and will weep at his graveside. Agnes sees this but doesn’t say it.” She see all this, but can’t see she’s having twins until the second baby pops out, and can’t tell her son from her daughter when they swap clothes. That’s the thing with magic — if it’s not consistent it becomes nonsense.
As I say, if you’re looking for a story about Shakespeare, only hints of his real life are here. “The theatres are closed, because of the plague, by order of the court, and so the lodger and his company of players have taken themselves off to tour nearby towns, places where it is permitted to gather in a crowd.”
In the end we do get to the Globe. But the story ends as soon as we get there.
I’m sounding disappointed about the book. Perhaps the magic reality isn’t for me and I’d sooner have had a straight story about Shakespeare. In a less uptight mindset I think I would have enjoyed this book very much. My bad. Go with the flow and enjoy the writing. It’s lush.
One thought on “Hamnet — book review”
Great review. Yes I loved the book AND I agree with all your hesitations now I think about it. Especially the depiction of the wafty woman with the uncategorised magic powers… finger and thumb, really? I said to Michael that it felt like she was a woman character who had been written by a man. But I loved the writing – especially being inside Hamnet’s head. And the glove shop and all that….