Inspired by Shakespeare: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

24 Nov

As a creative and artistic high school student, I was naturally drawn to the Drama Club and became smitten with theater when I was cast as Christopher Robin in “Winnie the Pooh” and then as the Emcee in “Cabaret.” Many other leading dramatic roles followed throughout high school, which cemented by lifelong love for theater. And in college, while majoring in English Literature, I developed an ardent passion for Shakespeare, which I studied for a year. I even had the opportunity to spend a summer abroad at King’s College in London intensely studying Shakespeare and did an internship at the Globe Theatre. A rewarding and exhilarating experience that has remained etched in my memory all these years later. So, when I learned that the award-winning Irish-British novelist Maggie O’Farrell had written the historical novel “Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague,” I knew that I had to read it, because it combined my fervent love of theater and Shakespeare.

This compelling and mesmerizing novel focuses on the untimely death of Shakespeare’s beloved son Hamnet, a name interchangeable with Hamlet, in 15th century Great Britain. Much like today’s COVID 19 Pandemic, England was ravaged by the Bubonic Plague in the 15th century and approximately 5 million people perished. According to the story, Hamnet was one of the young, innocent victims who succumbed to the plague. However, the plague is merely a backdrop in this deeply moving novel about a young, penniless Latin tutor (Shakespeare, although the author never refers to him by name) who falls in love with Agnes, a wild, eccentric and headstrong young woman who is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer. She has a better understanding of plants, herbs and potions, than she does of people. However, when she becomes pregnant, they are forced to marry, much to the dismay and disapproval of both families. She soon becomes a devoted and over-protective mother and an influential force on her young husband, whose writing career is just taking shape. After the birth of two more children, he becomes restless with family life and parts for London to pursue playwriting. The story then shifts to Agnes as she essentially raises her children alone, including the cunning, mischievous, and much favored Hamnet.

Ultimately, the story is a revealing portrait of a struggling marriage, a family ravaged with grief and loss, and a tender re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten. How ironic, yet profoundly meaningful, that Shakespeare named his most celebrated play after his son. This novel captured my attention from the opening page and held my interest throughout. The intriguing and well-drawn characters came to life for me and the compelling story quickly transported me to another time when life was simpler, yet just as complicated, and full of hope.

Written by:
Ethan Galvin
Information and Digital Services Librarian

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