I finished reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell yesterday. It was an excellent book, and I want to reflect on it some today. Mostly, I want to connect it to my late professor Dr. Libby Oakes, who taught Shakespeare and women’s poetry at Western Kentucky University for many years. I couldn’t figure out why the book was echoing so strongly for me, until I realized that I wished Libby had had a chance to read this novel. She would have loved it, and once I had that breakthrough, I was able to pinpoint more clearly the things I loved about the novel.
The novel isn’t really about Shakespeare, as he isn’t named in the text; rather the book imagines his family’s life in Stratford mostly while he is away in London working in the playhouses. By necessity, then, the text focuses on his wife, parents, siblings, and children. Not much is known in the historical record, but parish records show dates of marriages, births, and deaths. Libby, like all teachers of Shakespeare, offered us some of this biographical information about him as we studied the plays and historical context. Some things I remember from the available records and class discussion are that his marriage occurred 5-6 months before the birth of his first child, he left his wife the second best bed, and Hamnet, his son died at age 11, before he wrote Hamlet a few years later. Libby was so good at teaching us to imagine life behind the texts and to see the places in texts where our first readings might be off since we are so often trained to read with the dominant interpretations. She encouraged us in reading poetry from all eras by women to see how women’s material circumstances might affect our reading of their text and how we could imagine a life for them, more richly beautiful, from the text, if we would give ourselves permission to read more creatively.
In the novel, O’Farrell does that. She creates for the reader a thrilling, full, empowered Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, the woman Shakespeare married. Agnes has her own character and motivations and the relationship between them is fascinating and believable in a way that I don’t think most readers/scholars have imagined Shakespeare’s marriage. The story with Hamnet’s death (which isn’t a spoiler, because that’s the whole point of the novel) is magically rendered and so powerful. Libby always encouraged us to do more, see more, feel more with the texts we read, and I think this one would have delivered her such a powerful reading of Hamlet, as it did for me. And there are little Easter eggs for people who know a little about Shakespeare (like the second best bed). I’m sure there were more I missed, since it’s been more than 15 years since I studied Shakespeare.
I loved this book. (Linda, you should read it if you haven’t). 🙂
I inherited Doralee’s Kindle. I had not made the transition to e-reader before now. I have been wondering what book to order so I will order this one. Thanks for the recommendation. I saw an article in the paper recently about some conference supposedly to tell us all once again who actually wrote Shakespeare. I could hardly believe that was still a thing. But in our current age of disinformation and conspiracy theories I guess it is inevitable. I probably will pick up on even fewer of those Easter eggs as it has been 50 years since my Shakespeare class at WKU!