By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #16 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

William Shakespeare is, without a doubt, the most famoust English writer ever. However, we hardly know anything about his life. Maggie O'Farrell wrote a fictional account of how he lost his son. Want to find out what it's like? Read on!

William Shakespeare. The most famous and important writer in the English language, the author of plays that are known all over the world, and the inventor of words and phrases that are still used every day – he doesn’t need an introduction, does he? What you might not know is that we hardly know anything about the Bard, as he is sometimes called, at all. He was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon and he had a wife and three children, one of whom died when he was still a boy. That’s about it. Shakespeare’s mysterious life inspired Maggie O’Farrell to write the novel Hamnet, which focuses on the death of his son. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

Many students consider Shakespeare boring, and some might never forgive me for talking about him for weeks. I do get it, though: it must be so exasperating for them to overanalyse each word he’s ever written, to hear about sixteenth-century London, and to be forced to learn his poems by heart. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet kept reminding me of these agonizing lessons with my students. What she’s done, however, is infinitely better than anything I could ever come up with in class. It’s a fictional account of what William Shakespeare’s life might have been like, and I’ve learned so much from it.

Hamnet is about Wiliam Shakespeare, but then again, it isn’t; for he is never mentioned by name. Instead, this novel is about a man from Stratford-upon-Avon. He is the son of John and Mary, husband of Agnes, and father of Susanne, Hamnet and Judith. It is about how this man met his future wife and how they became parents. It is also about how one of their children falls ill with the plague and eventually dies. It is about a man who hates his current life and seeks his fortune elsewhere, in London. It is there that he can finally be himself, but in doing so, he has to say goodbye to his family. If you wouldn’t know it was about William Shakespeare, it could have been a story about anyone. By omitting his name, he becomes more real, more human, more relatable, and less the legendary playwright we all know. 

While the name Shakespeare is strikingly absent in Hamnet, his language, ironically, is present on every page, in each single word. Maggie O’Farrell has done her research, and it shows. She used only words that Shakespeare himself might have used, and writes about nature and witchcraft in much the same way as Shakespeare did. However, what I noticed most was the prose itself. While Shakespeare, as a playwright, made his stories come alive solely through dialogue, O’Farrell does the exact opposite; she pays much detail to each thought, each single action, each involuntary movement. There isn’t much dialogue in the novel, and Shakespeare especially does not talk much. Still, the reader gets to know each character intimately through her intimate descriptions of them.

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” I daresay this line is so famous that not only Shakespeare fanatics have heard of it. It is this important question that Maggie O’Farrell tries to answer in Hamnet, a novel in which life and death, and beginnings and endings, continuously trade places. There is the start of a relationship and its demise, and the beginning of a life and its ending. There is hope, but also despair. While life is celebrated in this novel, death is omnipresent – but death can also be the beginning of something else entirely. Hamnet’s death paradoxically also means his immortalisation. At the end of the novel, his name is used for a new play, and his essence is transferred into the play’s protagonist, Hamlet. In this play, Shakespeare himself (for he was also an actor) plays Hamlet’s dead father. It becomes clear, then, that the roles have reversed; some part of Shakespeare has died, symbolised by him playing a ghost, while Hamnet will live on forever. And that, I think, is what this novel truly is about: how the death of a child will haunt a person forever, even if that person is a legendary writer we hardly know anything about.

What’s your favourite Shakespeare play? What did you think of Hamnet? Do let me know in the comments! If you want to find out more about Shakespeare’s language, and especially his way of eloquently insulting people, make sure to read this post! And finally, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!

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