Behind the Bard

Staying In

Book review
Bríd Conroy

I loved ‘Hamlet’ at school. I still carry the passion my English teacher, Mrs Hudson, imbued in me for this genius Shakespearian tragedy and tortured musings of Prince Hamlet.
So I had been saving the reading of ‘Hamnet’, written by Maggie O’Farrell and published by Tinder Press, for a week’s holiday, which finally arrived. (I took a copy of Hamlet along too, Mrs Hudson!)
‘Hamnet’ tells the story of the death of Shakespeare’s son. The premise is intriguing. Not much is really known about Shakespeare’s life away from the Globe Theatre in London, the playhouse for which he wrote his plays.
He was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, and at 18, he married a girl Anne (Agnes) Hathaway, six years his senior. They had three children, one of which, Hamnet (also spelt Hamlet) died at eleven from an unknown cause.
O’Farrell’s book is a fictionalised account of the meeting and marriage of William and Anne, the circumstances that led to the death of their son, and the inspiration for ‘Hamlet’, the play that followed four years later.
Part of my enthusiasm for the book was to know more about Shakespeare himself, or indeed to use O’Farrell’s imaginings to imagine my own. And of course the book does that beautifully. But what I hadn’t counted on was Agnes, his wife.
The book starts with her and finishes with her. I confess to falling utterly in love with Agnes and feeling no remorse at all for abandoning William (temporarily).
She was eccentric, a healer, someone in touch with nature. She saw something in William and they married in breach of social norms. O’Farrell takes us on a journey from their meeting and their passion, to the birth of their children, to William’s restlessness, to his need to write.
Their living arrangements were not customary, but through her telling of the story we see how what we perceive as a staid and old fashioned world in the 1590s was able, just a little, to adapt itself to their ways.
We find a new appreciation and reverence for the fragility of life in a time when life perhaps was not taken so much for granted. Agnes grieves terribly for her son, but through her pain we see real beauty. We are there with her, through everything she experiences like a friend in the shadows, spurring her on.
O’Farrell surmises that ‘Hamlet’ may well have been inspired by Hamnet’s death. In the play, Prince Hamlet is tortured by the death of his father, who appears to him as a ghost, revealing his death at the hands of his uncle, now king. His ponderings and musings may well mirror how Shakespeare himself coped with the death of his son. Here too there is beauty and wisdom among the tragedy.
‘Hamnet’ gives us another chance to explore the price of genius, and through the life of Agnes we get to bring a hitherto silent female voice into our history and our stories.
Maggie O’Farrell won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her book. A richly deserved award.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.