Maggie O’Farrell’s book “Hamnet” – recreating a certain period of Shakespeare’s life – Part 2

Authored by: Balasubramaniam N

Maggie O Farrell in her author's note at the end of the novel "Hamnet" mentions that her story was inspired by a single fact in Shakespeare's life: the death of his son Hamnet in Stratford, Warwickshire in the summer of 1596. His burial is listed in the country records. Scholars have conjectured that plague could have been the cause of death; but there is no evidence, and Shakespeare never mentions it anywhere in his plays or poems, except by way of using the word "plague" as an exclamatory word in his dialogues. Four years later, around 1600, Shakespeare wrote "The tragedy of Hamlet: the prince of Denmark". For Maggie O Farrell, this void, this factual gap in Shakespeare's life was enough to conjure a brilliant fictional account that recreate the lives of Shakespeare and his family. What a world she creates!

It is often assumed that fiction is divorced from facts. But that is not the case. Fiction is often facts, refracted, and embellished through the creative imagination of a writer. What passes by our attention without stirring any surprise, reflection, or insight, grips the creative mind with possibilities. A great novelist is able to extract from what they experience a deeper significance, and then cast what they see and learn on a broader canvas that is fulfilling, plausible and timeless. Novels such as the "Great Expectations by Dickens", " Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy, or "The name of the rose" by Umberto Eco, to name a few, have this quality. They are at once rooted in fact, yet not of it. I love the story of how Philip Roth's 2004 novel " The plot against America", a classic, came to be written. In fact, this story illustrates the creative well-springs of historical fiction. In 1940, when Hitler was on the rise, the Republican party had thoughts of nominating Charles Lindberg, an open Nazi sympathizer, to run against Roosevelt for Presidency. Philip Roth read about this plan in Arthur Schlesinger's passing reference to this plot in his autobiography. That was enough. In three years, Roth published " The Plot against America", a wonderfully written historical fiction that posits an alternate history of the USA, if such a ploy had indeed succeeded. This is the power of fiction; it can draw on inconspicuous, uncommon, and often underrated sources and transform the material into an emotionally satisfying and intellectually provoking piece of art.

Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is one of his most enigmatic tales. Hamlet himself is difficult to categorize. He is a Hero, an anti-hero, a dutiful son, an angry philosopher, a brooding introvert, and a revenging villain – all in one – before he is tragically struck dead at the end of the play. Never before and after in Shakespeare's plays has a Ghost played such an important role. A Ghost triggers the drama, insinuates one against the other throughout the play, and at the same time stands as a disembodied witness to the confusion within Hamlet. Goethe, the German poet and philosopher explained Hamlet's suffering self as the embodiment of a poetic life; on the other hand, Sigmund Freud dismissed Hamlet's brooding and irritable introspections as a sign of incest – jealousy towards his mother for having married his uncle, few months after his father's death. The character of Hamlet has been dissected, studied, and pondered by scholars for generations now, and each has a different spin on Hamlet and his state of mind. Hamlet's soliloquies are arguably the best in English literature. Never again has any character spoken their innermost thoughts with such melody, grace, insights, and poetic elegance. English scholars have identified and discovered the usage of more than six hundred new words, invented by Shakespeare, in the course of writing this play. Hamlet is also one of the longer plays in the repertoire, and it has a play within a play, a kind of mirror to the happenings in the main drama. The play touches on friendship, trust, love, filial love, betrayal, revenge, violence, deep satire, and sarcasm on the human condition. But mostly, Hamlet is a revenge drama. The father is suspiciously found dead, the uncle plays foul, and the son seeks revenge. It is a universal theme, but in Shakespeare's deft hands, the battlefield becomes the inner self and the effects of the inner struggle project into the world outside. It is also not a very easy Shakespearean play to read. And understandably so. If one is new to Shakespeare, it would be best to read Hamlet in the original after reading some of the lighter and shorter plays, as a warmup, before one journey's into the dense philosophical ruminations of Hamlet. Adding to the mystery of Hamlet, there are purportedly two versions of Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote – Ur-Hamlet and Hamlet; and it is in the second version the Ghost plays an important role. By the way, Hamlet's father was also called Hamlet, and Shakespeare himself played the role of father's ghost for the Elizabethan audience – strengthening Maggie O Farrells's premise that he sought redemption by reinventing himself as the spirit of his son on the stage, mysteriously transposing the grief and bereavement over his son Hamnet on to Hamlet – the father ghost.

Maggie O Farrell is a fifty-year-old novelist from Ireland, and Hamnet is her seventh novel. The distinguishing feature of her work is the brilliant prose, evocative descriptions, and an uncanny knack for sketching characters that resonate within. Hamnet was published in 2020. With the Covid 19 pandemic raging throughout the world, readers found the haunting descriptions of the plague very prescient. The containment, the fear, the remedies, the unsettling silence, the virulence of the disease, and the emotional state of people living through such time, remind readers of what they were going through. There is a chapter in the novel in which Maggie, in exquisite prose and riveting language, details how the plague bacilli traveled across the continents to descend on Shakespeare's home in Stratford. It is a masterclass in creative writing. In those ten pages, we journey with the plague, as it hops from animals to humans; in ships, carts, and horses; dodging, skipping, and attaching itself to commonplace items of exchange, unknown to the carriers themselves, but incubating within, until it erupts one fine day as boils ( buboes), in the neck, underneath the arms, sending convulsions of pain throughout the sweating body of its host, already in a delirium, hanging precariously between consciousness and unconsciousness in a feverish state. I read this chapter a few times to deeply absorb this masterly literary account of how a pandemic spreads.

Hamnet is more about Agnes – Shakespeare's wife, than Shakespeare himself. The story is told in her voice. It is she, not him, who comes out as a mysterious, profound, and deeply empathetic personality. Her birth is shrouded in mystery and so are her powers. It is she who chooses Shakespeare as her husband and prophesizes to herself that this man is destined for something great, though she knows not what or how. Her man, who has a talent for words, loves reading and scribbling, has potential – so she thinks. It is she who cleverly orchestrates Shakespeare's relocation to London ( scholars call this flight) when he is bogged down by his father, and it is she, who truly understands the meaning of the play Hamlet and the ghost when she watches her husband stride onto the stage as the ghost himself. She understands the ghost, not as a dead king, but as son Hamnet's spirit, asking questions on life and death, especially, why life so young has been taken away, so quickly, so violently. Throughout the book, not once, is Shakespeare even mentioned by his name, or even referred to as William. He is always "the husband" – the other half of Agnes. If you did not know about Shakespeare, it wouldn't have mattered, the story can still enthrall.

The novel is suffused with the atmosphere of the plague. The book begins with an announcement of plague in the Shakespeare home, and till the very end, it is the tether around which the tale revolves. Like her countrywoman Hillary Mantel who constructs her sentences with great care, Maggie O Farrell shows extraordinary control over the medium. One cannot put down the book, it flows from one chapter to the next, holding the reader's attention with deft turns in the tale or irresistibly beautiful passages or both. It is a short book, not more than three hundred pages in the paperback edition, but it feels long and satisfying. The writing stretches time backward and forward spanning a period of twenty years in total before concluding in London.

The Book was awarded, among others, the National Book critics awards for Fiction; which, in my opinion, is a more prestigious award than the National book award itself because it represents the choice of those who assess the enduring qualities of the book than mere current sales number, A lover of literature will definitely savor every word of the book, and will perhaps return to it for a second time for one more dip into its lush language and timeless tale. Maggie O Farrell succeeds at two levels. One, a deeply moving tale beautifully told, and two, as a piece of historical fiction she manages to throw light on the present through the lens of the past, just as great science fiction writers illuminate the possibilities of a future based on present knowledge. As we are living through this pandemic, this book offers a very emotional account of what an epidemic can do to our lives, the price we pay, not just in terms of physical mortality, but the emotional pain and loss we suffer that can never be assuaged.

Maggie O Farrells's "Hamnet" will stand the test of time. It is worth having a copy in one's personal library.

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