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The Short Life of Hamnet Shakespeare

ROSE EVANS ventures into the untold story of ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell and the themes of motherhood, tragedy and more.

What initially drew me to Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell was the fact that Hamnet was a twin. As a twin myself, I know the bond is alive and kicking (even in the womb). Despite telling the life story of Shakespeare's only son, I really wanted to dive into a narrative that explored the role of twins, and their biological and psychological bond.

The novel of Hamnet is based on the life of the Shakespeare family in the 1500s. Firstly, the novel focuses predominately on the mother, Agnes, and her son Hamnet. Agnes' childhood was very dysfunctional, and when her father died leaving her a rather evil stepmother, Joan, she came across a way out - the village’s Latin tutor (a.k.a. William Shakespeare). Shakespeare isn't actually named as the Bard of the English Language, but the Bard of Avon. To any reader that doesn't know the context of the novel, the father could be anyone. But, taken against his life in London where he works as a playwright, it becomes obvious. Agnes is rumoured to be an expert in home medicinal remedies, with a variety of herbs and spices that she gives over the counter of her very own pharmacy. 

The introductory narrative of the novel gives the reader an insight into the chaotic atmosphere of a Tudor town, and of the young lives of Hamnet and Judith. The narrative soon takes a turn for the worse, with Judith being taken ill. She has a lump growing on her neck, and the fear of the plague sets into the family. The love Hamnet has for his twin sister makes him yearn for Judith to live. He sneaks into her assembled bed by the roaring fire, and the illness falls upon him. He dies soon after, and the weight of grief sits heavy on Agnes especially. The father returns home, but soon leaves for London again as he can't handle the grief and being in the place where his only son had died. I would have liked more of a reflection on Judith's feeling towards the death of her twin brother.

There are aspects of her sneaking out of the family home to view the ghostly image of her twin brother running around the streets of Henley Street: 'Judith, though, hears him in the swish of the swoosh against the floor. She sees him in the winged dip of a bird over the wall' (p.298). This is in contrast to Agnes, who is frustrated as she can mind-read and see the futures of many people she has come across, and yet she can't hear, see, or feel her son: ' Hamnet, Hamnet, are you there? Nothing. No one.' (p.298). This is the one part of the novel that truly defines the connection between the twins. Other than that, the book has a heavy emphasis on maternal grief. Agnes is alone in her grief, but she is surrounded by the young women she has raised, and the woman that has helped raised them too - her mother-in-law. There is a strong sense of female power in the novel, from Agnes' strong female independence as a child, to her hard resilience as a mother. The male characters are certainly overshadowed by the females in this novel.

The novel ends with the elegiac remembrance of Hamnet, with the unveiling of the play to grieving Agnes, who has been seeking the ghostly thoughts and body of her beloved Hamnet. Without any letters being received for months from her husband in London, she assumes that he is just busy with work. However, when news gets to her that he has written a new play, and it is called 'Hamlet', she is outraged that the word has gotten to her through her evil stepmother, rather than her husband himself. Mortified by the news and creation of the play, and angry towards her husband: 'she has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband's heart to understand' (p.363). She travels to London with her brother, Bartholomew.

There is a sharp contrast between the depiction of London life to Agnes’ own life in the small town. They reach the stretch of London Bridge, filled with high rising buildings sprawled over the skyline: 'London Bridge is like a town in itself, and a noxious, oppressive one at that[...] it is completely dark, as if they have been plunged into darkness' (p.356).  The dark depression and gloom that the Bridge pulls them into further highlights how Agnes's feelings overwhelm her, whilst also bringing to light the city environment of an archaic London. As soon as she reaches the theatre at the other side of London Bridge, she is swept into the on-going display of Hamlet. At last Agnes sees Hamlet: 'Hamlet here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can' (p.366). She can immortalise her son in the creation of the play, and she can eventually sympathise with her husband and the work he creates with his mind. Together, they grieve their son, and his memory can be carried on forever. As we know, Hamlet is one of the most successful Shakespeare tragedies, and has certainly lived on throughout the ages. 

Hamnet is novel of tragedy, relationships, motherhood, and grief. But most of all, it’s about the memories of the loved ones we've lost, and how we can immortalise them. It shows us the power of art and language. The memory and the spirit of them will always be there. 

Written by Rose Evans

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