Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell Book Review: And This Gives Life to Thee

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII

‘And This Gives Life to Thee’

A long time ago, there lived a poet, and he, like most poets, indulged in procrastination whilst extensively contemplating the meaning of life, the beauty of love, and of course, the nature of death. He loved, as most poets do, probably more expressively and more poetically than most people do, and of course, he needed to describe this feeling before it consumed him entirely and left him utterly senseless. He let his chin rest in the nest of his palm and gazed ponderously through the window, observing the nature and the people going about their business on that beautiful summer’s day. ‘What could be more beautiful than a perfect summer’s day,’ he thought.  ‘The beloved, of course!’ He grabbed the quill, the ink started flowing; he wrote, crossed, ripped, paper balls flew all over the room, and before he knew it, the dusk had arrived, and a particular kind of chill seeped out of the dark corners of his little room, crept up the spindly legs of his chair, and wormed its way deep into his bones. ‘Summer days pass,’ he thought, ‘summers fade, beauty wilts, life dissolves into oblivion. But surely, this kind of love cannot pass. There has to be something more, something that would give it life beyond the cold pallor of the tomb.’ He scratched his beard thoughtfully, leaving an ink stain on his cheek. He looked at his blotched fingertips, at the quill, and the paper, and suddenly, it dawned on him. 

***

While reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, readers come across a wide scope of topics, from family dynamics, motherhood, siblings’ ties, women’s oft-marginalized experiences, and eventually, to the purpose and value of art. Just as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 talks about the beauty and perfection of his beloved, yet eventually, is not entirely about the beloved, but about the power of art to immortalize the said beauty, so Hamnet is not entirely about the boy Hamnet, nor about his mother, grandmother, sisters, or his famous father (who is never mentioned explicitly by name, but whom we know to be a reference to William Shakespeare). It is about the power of art to extend the life and the presence of a beloved person. 

The novel’s backbone is the story of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother. The father is referred to as ‘her husband’, ‘the father’, or ‘the Latin tutor’. At times he’s even slightly mocked for his high-winded speech, artistic sensibilities, and complete inability to act in the face of real life, such as when Agnes retreats to the forest during Susanna’s birth. This omission cuts the tethers with history that the book might otherwise have, and allows it to tell its own truth in the way that only fiction can. The attention is instead focused on the domestic life of this family, which is, behind the scenes directed by Agnes herself. And Agnes is a force of nature, the daughter of a mysterious woman who came from the woods cloaked in myth, the undeterred forest wind, a free-spirited herbalist, followed by a trail of rumours regarding her somewhat unconventional gifts. However, her gifts fail her when it comes to saving the life of her own child.  

What is the word for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin?’

Hamnet and Judith are two halves of the same apple, they share the core, and after he’s gone, Judith struggles to form ideas about her own identity now that she is alone. She sees him and feels him everywhere around her, as a phantom limb, in the shimmer of light, the dance of the dust, the whisper of the wind. The lines between the brother and the sister are blurred. There is a trick that they play on people by exchanging ‘places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.’ This blurs not only the distinction between the two children, but also the gender lines and conventions, pointing at the unconventional upbringing that they’d had, and hinting at another one of Shakespearean common tropes. 

In the end, as Agnes watches the performance of Hamlet on the stage, she is devastated by grief and ravaged by anger and betrayal. How could he have used the name of their dead son for one of his plays? But when she sees that her husband takes the role of the ghost and Hamlet is a young prince still alive and kicking, she understands that he is doing what every father would – giving his own life for that of his child. As a playwright, this is the only way he knows – by writing a play and letting us repeat the boy’s name with every new performance and every new reading. 

© 2020 Erna Grcic 

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this lovely review. I remember reading that particular sonnet at a public event once and all the while thinking how does anyone get to write like that? And the answer was not many people ever do.

    Liked by 1 person

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