One of the classes I took while pursuing a master’s degree was ‘Shakespeare et le Vivant,’ a look at Shakespeare’s depiction of the natural world in his work. I dutifully read play after play, attended lectures in the ancient Sorbonne academic buildings, scribbled down notes, and wrote my final paper on Shakespeare’s allusions to falconry. While I learned plenty of new information along the way and read important pieces of literature I had been meaning to pick up for years, there was an element missing from the course. We were speaking about the natural world, living plants and animals and their representation in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, yet nothing we talked about ever breathed life into the author himself.
Maggie O’Farrells latest book, Hamnet, is the missing piece to my Shakespearian studies. It is a story about Shakespeare written without ever once using his name. The most famous playwright ever is alternately referred to as ‘the father,’ ‘the husband,’ ‘the latin tutor,’ among others. His wife is named, as are his three children, his father, his mother and his siblings. And while we know it is in fact a story about Shakespeare and the tragic death of his son, Hamnet, from the bubonic plague, it could be a story of any father’s loss. O’Farrell’s compelling and compassionate telling of this tale subverts time periods and genres, instead becoming a universal narrative that just happens to involve one of the most celebrated geniuses of all time.
The beauty of O’Farrell’s writing is that you don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare to get lost in the world she creates and the characters who inhabit it. While the book is based upon the life of the great playwright, it is more about those closest to him: his anomalous wife Agnes and his three children: Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith. Through O’Farell’s work of historical fiction, the man who so often seemed more myth than reality is represented as a relatable character. He is at turns a lovesick teenager, a proud father, an unfaithful husband, and a man overcome with grief. The story jumps between decades, painting a vivid portrait of the life of a man whose work is ubiquitous, and one who turned grief into one of his greatest achievements as a playwright.
Hamnet will be released in July. To pre-order, click here.