Review 1627: Hamnet

Hamnet explores the impulses that went into the writing of Hamlet as well as important moments in the marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. It focuses on grief from the death of a beloved son.

The similarity in the name of Shakespeare’s son to that of his most famous protagonist is obvious, but I wasn’t aware until this book came out that they were essentially the same name. O’Farrell’s newest book parallels scenes from the beginning of Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne (called Agnes in the book) with the hours leading up to Hamnet’s death from bubonic plague. Then she deals with the aftermath.

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I liked all the invention going on, as O’Farrell depicts Agnes as a sort of wild child/wise woman. Then I reflected that little is known of the couple and that I was reading fiction, after all. I don’t like it when a fiction writer knowingly distorts the truth, but O’Farrell stuck fairly closely to the few known facts. The result I found extremely touching. I admit that my initial reluctance to buy in changed to my being completely rapt. This is a deft, sensitive story that concentrates mostly on Agnes’s feelings and reactions.

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Day 635: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare

Cover for The Secret Life of William ShakespeareAs I am interested in Shakespeare and recently enjoyed a Regency romance by Jude Morgan, I wanted to enjoy this novel a lot more than I did. There is of course a risk in making a historical figure a main character in a novel, and that is that no author truly knows the mind of the real person. The truly successful novel of this type bravely forges a persona. Morgan’s solution, however, is to make Shakespeare, about whom little is known, truly amorphous in character.

The novel centers mostly on the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, an interesting choice, since we know they lived apart for much of their marriage. Morgan explains the marriage between Shakespeare and his bride, almost ten years older, as a love match, which is perhaps more unlikely than many different explanations for it (although of course not impossible). He has Anne reluctantly agree to Will’s eventual decision to join a group of players only on the condition that he is never unfaithful to her. Anne does not understand Will’s fascination with the theatre and views it with jealousy.

To go along with the amorphous nature of Will’s character, the details of his London life are murky. Morgan hardly ever shows him at his work or refers to any of the events of his life. Instead, he has him in conversation with various players and writers, particularly Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. The introduction of Jonson into the novel is particularly confusing, as often we side track to examine his life and career as a playwright. In fact, he is a much more definite character than Shakespeare is.

It felt to me as though, in being perhaps reluctant to misinterpret Shakespeare’s personality, Morgan just doesn’t interpret it at all. Wife and friends find him equally unknowable. I had a hard time reconciling my knowledge of the plays with this reticent character. In particular, it seemed as though a man who was so fascinated with language would play with it more in his speech, as he does in Anthony Burgess’s much more adventuresome book Nothing Like the Sun. I did not buy Morgan’s idea of Shakespeare’s personality at all.