Reviewed by Frank McKone
In 1981 a small group of my students decided they would present a ‘poor theatre’ Hamlet in our Drama Studio. For several weeks they read, absorbed and discussed Shakespeare’s four-hour long script. “We are not interested in the Rotten State of Denmark,” they said. “It’s a play about two families. There’s Hamlet and his relationships with his mother, his father and his uncle. Then there’s Ophelia and her relationships with her father and her brother – and with Hamlet.” Then they instructed me to spend the upcoming two-week vacation cutting out the politics and other extraneous material to produce a focussed family drama under two hours long.
Reading O’Farrell’s Hamnet took me back to the intensity of that exercise – and opened up my thinking about Shakespeare’s work in a completely unexpected way. I had often wondered about his family life somewhere in the background of his artistic development, from the early comedies through the histories to the symbolism of The Tempest.
Hamlet always seemed an outlier: O’Farrell’s remarkable imagination tells us why, in her story of Hamnet and his relationship with his mother Agnes, his father William, his sisters, his uncles and aunts, and even his grandparents – of the families of Agnes of Hewlands Farm and William, son of Stratford town glovemaker John Shakespeare. Her re-creation of their lives, of necessity fictional, is surely the most wonderful telling of truths by any modern author.
I would wish that this novel should not be seen as merely adding to the pile of publications about William Shakespeare. It stands in its own right as a novel, stimulated to be sure by the mysteries that surround the famous playwright. But it is the story of a woman whose son dies unfathomably at the age of eleven; a woman of powerful emotions and understanding matching her husband – like her, he must also take his own direction. Each must establish their own independent lives.
Set as it is in the insecure world of the late 16th Century, even ironically still subject to the bubonic plague after 300 years, just as we suddenly face an unpredictable Covid-19, reading what Agnes thinks, feels and does is absolutely as relevant in today’s world as in hers. The strength of O’Farrell’s writing is in her ability to take us into the minds of her characters using a surprisingly simple technique.
When I read the first chapter I was taken aback, at first feeling I was made to stand back, and yet at a close-up distance, as if I were invading the space and perhaps the privacy of Hamnet: “Near the bottom [of a flight of stairs], he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.”
But, before long, this objective descriptive writing, always in the present tense, revealed within it a gradual understanding on my part of this person’s understanding of himself. He has come in, but no-one is home: “The boy opens his mouth. He calls the names, one by one, of all the people who live here, in this house. His grandmother. The maid. His uncles. His aunt. The apprentice. His grandfather. The boy tries them all, one after another. For a moment, it crosses his mind to call his father’s name, to shout for him, but his father is miles and hours and days away, in London, where the boy has never been.”
And so we, reading, begin to see; to catch a passing feeling; start to think we know what is happening. On Page 367, we realise, yes – now we know!
For a final bow to the author, her other technical device needs special praise. I call it ‘back stitching time'. Chapter 2 takes us back 15 years before Chapter 1; Chapter 3 begins where Chapter 1 had ended. But this is hand sewing, not machine. Over the sewing of the seam that is the whole story, the stitching goes backwards and forwards. Sewing tips online tell me the back stitch ‘is one of the strongest and most durable stitches, making it very reliable’.
But creating a strong seam is not the whole story. Earlier time chapters bit by bit catch up to the present until everything comes together at the end in a way that I can only describe as highly satisfying. The effect, rather than mere strength in story-line, is as if a three-dimensional sculpture is built up until the shape is completed with the final words. The work of art is finished.
Maggie O’Farrell deserves every accolade for creating fine art thoroughly in keeping with that of Hamnet’s father, and true to the memory of Hamnet’s mother.