“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies. That’s for thoughts.”
—Ophelia, Hamlet, act IV, scene V.
There is something remarkable in the state of Stratford, at least as rendered in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague. Something I turn over and over, like an array of items rising and falling in a boiling stock pot. The novel tells the story of William Shakespeare’s family, centered around the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet. Some scholars have connected the death of Hamnet with the appearance, roughly two years later, of the play Hamlet, which shares not only a name (give or take) but also a preoccupation with death, grief, and life cut short.
The play Hamlet looms over the book and yet has almost no place in it because Shakespeare has only a limited place in it. Instead, the novel’s central character is Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife. Agnes of the novel lives life on her own terms, a naturalist with a knack for predicting what will happen and a comfort with wild things and spaces that leads the town to whisper about her bizarre and witchy ways. William Shakespeare, as such, gets no mention. Instead, the novel refers to him as “her husband,” “the Latin tutor,” “his father,”etc., the great playwright rendered only through his relationships to others.
Shakespeare’s relative absence makes sense since he spent a minority of his time in the family orbit in Stratford, instead pursuing life, success, and fame in London. But O’Farrell makes a clever switch here. We only know about Agnes (a.k.a. Anne Hathaway), Hamnet, and the rest of the family because of Shakespeare and his plays, but by de-naming and de-emphasizing Shakespeare in this story, she forces the reader to give equal value to the life of a common, normal woman—living a common, normal life, and dealing with a common, normal tragedy—in the late 1500s.
Centering Agnes also let’s O’Farrell explore the subject of art and the artist’s life, but tell it slant. Agnes intuits her husband’s unhappiness and happiness, but has no connection to him as an artist and how that factors into his contentment. Indeed, like everyone else in their small town, she has no notion of art as a vocation, as a calling painful if ignored. And so we receive hints of what escaping Stratford to be a player and writer means to Shakespeare, but given to us through others’ bewilderment over his choices and what he even does in London. O’Farrell thus reveals the glory and suffering of the artist without subjecting us to the moody slings and arrows of yet another man-boy poet character. She also, again, demonstrates how other lives have value even if not imprinted on history and literature.
Last, this book is so, so well written. Beautiful but also engaging, with unexpected metaphors and ways of explaining and exploring. Take, for example, this winky, chapter-opening scene:
“The lines and line of apples are moving, jolting, rocking on their shelves. Each apple is centred in a special groove, carved into the wooden racks that run around the walls of this small storeroom.
Rock, rock, jolt, jolt.
The fruit has been placed with care, just so: the woody stem down and the star of the calyx up. The skin of the apple mustn’t touch that of its neighbor. They must sit like this, lightly held by the wooden groove, a finger width from each other; they will brown and sag and moulder and rot. They must be preserved in rows, like this, separate, stems down, in airy isolation.
Except that something is moving the apples. Again and again and again and again, over and over, with a shunting, nudging, insistent, motion.”
If that isn’t both a surprising and delightful entree into a sex scene, I don’t know what is! And moreover, it is also a gorgeous symbol for the selfish abandon of horny youth. While reading Hamnet this week, I spent my otherwise-occupied hours longing to be back in its rhythms through to the end. Even though the book is done and gone, lady, it’s a comfort to know I can go back.
- Literature that is aware of literature—in dialogue with other works, drawing attention to itself as literature, etc.
- Really good writing, in any genre