“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;” William Shakespeare
Maggie O’Farrell brings to life the heartbreaking death story of Shakespeare’s only son. Some fiction and some facts, she put together this historical anecdote about which not much is known. The story skills are so beautiful, writing just amazing. Employing her literacy license to re-create the true identities, setting the Elizabethan scene in a most candid manner, she gains the trust from the reader by expertly relating the aspects of family, poverty, human vices, innocent childhood, resilient youth – and then plugs in some mystifying elements in the tale. The book is written in such a beautiful flow (although some might object to alternate narration, given she goes back and forth in different times but most found it quite harmonious); the facts, history and cast all blend so well with the enigma that is one of the main themes. The air of mystique is not only in the content but also in her writing style – she never refers to Shakespeare with his name – she calls him lodger, son, Latin Tutor, husband, father…
The Latin Tutor falls in love with Agnus, who is what people called the “forest witch” with “tinctures and tisanes”, could heal and foresee people’s future. The passionate affair results in a pregnancy and their marriage. They have a daughter and then twins – a boy and a girl, Hamnet and Judith (fun fact: the book was released in UK as “Hamnet and Judith”). The Black Death (another word Farrell never mentions but alludes to) comes to Shakespeare’s home and claims one of the eleven-year-old twins. Maggie O’Farrell did an astounding job of penning down the event of this death. The scene is so deeply affecting and poignant as one of the members of our book club said, that “the death itself becomes a character”.
The book opens with the death quotes, and if the reader does not come to the book with this piece of knowledge, he or she is given one right at the beginning. Although loss of Hamnet is the purpose the book is written, and it is the most important node on which the structure of the book stands, I found myself most vested in was the aspect the writer touches – relationship of a couple after the death of a child, the reactions, the ways each copes with it. How the pain and suffering of this unimaginable turmoil can blind one to overlook the very important bond between two people who created that being in the first place. The depth of loss that this unthinkable sadness brings can’t be expressed but O’Farrell writes these impacting words: “Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself. Cold and lifeless, on this board, right in front of you. Look, here, see. And Hamnet? Where is”
History tells us Shakespeare’s plays took a turn from comedy to tragic as time passed. He named one of his tragedy as Hamlet four years after his son died, in which he expresses his loss depicted in a role reversal. Owning to the era’s social norms, adolescent boys were cast to play women’s roles in theatre. This is probably something that is not much talked about but how hard it must be for the playwright to teach the boys of his son’s age, to see them grow up when his own never will? When a child dies, the promise, the hope the future dies with it. It is very hard to come to terms with the unthinkable. Was he able to reconcile of loss his feelings with this play? Relationship between the play and his real-life tragedy is briefly but in full affect touched by the author towards the end of the story. His feelings of loss and grief described with beautiful sentiments. “He must be somewhere- all he has to do is find him”
The book is full of emotions and is always engaging with themes like love, mystery, death, grief and even pandemic. The sub-themes could be nature, pandemic, patience and mental illness. The pace of the book was just perfect for my reading pleasure. It concluded where I wanted it to as a reader and she wrapped the ends she left loose very skillfully. I would definitely recommend the book to any reader who loves Shakespeare, period literature, literary classic and historical fiction and just in general a good writing!
I read this book with an amazing book club run by a very enthusiastic reader, Dr. Shahnaz Ahmad. She also has a podcast called Living a Life Through Books. which started off to address reading and challenges associated with it but has now evolved to be a podcast about everything bookish with month in reviews, author conversations and of course the recording of the book club that I’m so glad to be part of. Here is the recording of Hamnet (spoiler alert please!).
She also has a blog but even she will admit that she doesn’t post as much because the podcast keeps her busy. Our next club pick is Caste by Isabel Wilkerson which I alternated between print and Audible. Looking forward to the discussion!!
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What am I reading/listening currently?
Casual Vacany J.K. Rowling (reading on Kindle)
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (reading on my own vintage edition from 1980s)