It has been a long time since I read literary fiction and the opening pages of O’Farrell’s Hamnet reminded me why: because of style over substance, meandering non-plots and vague characterization. Always, at the forefront, the author’s writing and never being able to be absorbed in, or by, the narrative. O’Farrell’s Hamnet proved me wrong; it was absorbing, moving, and contained sharp, delineated, compelling characterization.
I have loved William Shakespeare since the day my grade 7 teacher handed me a tiny, hard-bound copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have taught him every year of my more than 30-year teaching career and I have, with a few exceptions (sorry, Troilus and Cressida), read his plays and sonnets many times over. I have trekked with students and friends to the Shakespeare festival at our Canadian Stratford and watched, enthralled, characters who rave, rant, quip, orate, harangue, roar, bellow, pun, banter, declaim, sob, and sing. His language has always washed over me to say everything I fail to articulate.
I was scared O’Farrell would flatten Shakespeare to idealized genius, but I got something alive and interesting and much more than I wasn’t expecting. I knew going in that the novel would focus on Shakespeare’s son and play and I knew, from years of teaching, that his son had died, young, and that he wrote Hamlet some time after both his son’s and father’s deaths. But at the centre of Hamnet is the woman we know next to nothing about, except she was Shakespeare’s wife, bore him three children, lived apart from him until the last years of his life, and became his widow.
In writing her novel, O’Farrell understood something fundamental about Shakespeare: that an extraordinary man would need an equally remarkable mate and she created one in Anne, whom she calls “Agnes”. The novel’s first third or so sets up who Anne was and how she and Shakespeare met, courted, and married. O’Farrell’s Anne is an original, a wild woman with a pet-kestrel; she spends more time in the woods than on her father’s farm. She is an herbalist and healer, but O’Farrell, thank goodness, is not out to make Anne into a “New Age” savant. Anne is a woman of her time, barely literate, dowry-ed, with an independent spirit. She meets the “Latin Tutor” (Shakespeare) when he arrives at the farm to tutor her half-brothers.
While Anne’s life is one of forest and dale, we see William beset by his father’s violence. A temperamental, quick-to-anger-and-strike man, John Shakespeare comes across as one who blighted his son’s life. True, or not, we cannot ever know (we have so little evidence of William’s or Anne’s life); father-and-son dominate the first half of the narrative and are its weakest part. Once William marries and leaves for London, except for an occasional volatile cameo, John is dropped from the narrative, which works towards its spareness to focus on Anne, the children, and William’s returns. Given how complex, nuanced, and psychologically penetrative Shakespeare’s portrayals of fathers and sons is, O’Farrell had to account for that relationship somehow, I guess. I’m not certain it totally worked for me, but it works for the narrative. (It always feels that literary fiction must find some way of explaining character via physical, or sexual abuse.)
O’Farrell’s narrative’s strength is its portrayal of love and loss: between husband and wife, between parent and child. Anne, Hamnet, Judith, Susanna, William, and the extended family, William’s sometimes-sympathetic-sometimes-querulous mother, Mary, Anne’s giant of a perceptive brother, Bartholomew, they feel authentic, believable, and close too to who we are, our family complexities and the depth of our feelings. O’Farrell managed to create characters and family dynamics that feel both of their time and ours.
I think her greatest strength lies in her portrayal of marriage, parenthood, and most of all, grief as absence. Hamnet’s death devastates Anne and William and causes a loss and rift between them. There is a beautiful scene, months after Hamnet’s death, when William returns to Stratford and his family. Anne sees through bravado and sophistication to a life that has gone beyond her and her circumscribed world. And yet, when William seeks her out the next day, when she is gathering plants in her beloved forest, when he lets his grief show, it is a moving, beautifully rendered scene:
Beside her, he clears his throat. She hears him inhale, about to speak, and she readies herself. Here it comes.
‘How often do you think of him?’ he says.
…she turns to look at him. His face is obscured by his folded arms, his head hanging down. It is an attitude of abject grief, of sorrow, of such utter sadness…
…’All the time,’ she says. ‘He is always here and, yet, of course,’ she presses a fist against her breastbone, ‘he is not.’
‘I find,’ he says, his voice still muffled, ‘that I am constantly wondering where he is. Where he has gone. It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind. Whatever I am doing, I am thinking: Where is he, where is he? He can’t have just vanished. He must be somewhere. All I have to do is find him. I look for him everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience. That’s what I am doing, when I look out at them all: I try to find him, or a version of him.’
…’What was that?’ she says.
He says it again.
‘I didn’t hear you.’
‘I said,’ he says, lifting his head — she sees his face is scored with tears. ‘that I may run mad with it. Even now, a year on.’
‘A year is nothing,’ she says, picking up a fallen chamomile bloom. ‘It’s an hour or a day. We may never stop looking for him. I don’t think I would want to.’
Hamnet‘s last twenty pages are the most remarkable part of O’Farrell’s novel. We glimpse Shakespeare’s London room, where he writes his plays, and I loved O’Farrell’s description of it as a “monk’s cell.” Finally, Anne and William together, their dead son, a stage, a play for the ages, and a resurrection, the compensatory gift of art.
From Sonnet XVIII, “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”