Two things drew me to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. First, O’Farrell herself whose earlier fiction and non-fiction stand out in my mind as some of the most enjoyable reads that I have had since I started this blog a few years ago. (See The Hand that First Held Mine, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and I am, I am, I am).
The second thing is Hamnet’s link to Shakespeare. The story is inspired by Shakespeare’s son who died of plague while still a teenager.
The older that I get, and the more performances of Shakespeare plays that I see, the more I have come to realise that I like them best when they are performed outdoors without fancy costumes or famous actors but with a cast that brings the universal themes to life so that you scarcely notice unfamiliar language and instead enjoy the pace, the story, the play on words, the comedy, confusion and slapstick, the use of verse when tragedy looms, the turn on a comma.
There’s a timelessness to these outdoor performances — a sense of connection to audiences that have gone before — a sheer pleasure in witnessing a play performed outdoors on a sunny hillside on a summer evening. And, for me, Maggie O’Farrell captures much of this, creating an atmospheric story in a world closely linked to nature where you can lose yourself for a while and enjoy those universal connections.
While it’s Hamnet that features in the title, it’s really his mother — Agnes — who is the main character.
Like her mother before her, Agnes is a herbalist who understands how to use plants like valerian, comfrey, chamomile, sage, thyme and lavender to cure or to calm when cure is not possible. Married to Shakespeare, she has three children — a daughter, Susanna, and twins — Judith and Hamnet.
The twins, like many characters in Shakespeare’s comedies occasionally exchange identities to play tricks on their family but it is tragedy rather than comedy that darkens their door when plague arrives.
If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, don’t let that put you off Hamnet. You don’t need to know anything about the plays or indeed the man himself to appreciate this novel. It’s just that if you know a little, it may add to your enjoyment. I bought the Kindle edition.