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 328: Hamlet

Cover for HamletMy husband likes his jokes. When I told him I was re-reading Hamlet, he said, “It’s full of clich├ęs, you know.” But it was amazing to see how many lines from this play are so familiar to all of us, have almost entered our societal DNA.

Everyone is familiar with the plot. Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has died, and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude has married his uncle Claudius, his father’s brother, who is now king. Hamlet is in grief and dismay at his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage. In the first act of the play, Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who tells him that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear as he slept. The ghost orders Hamlet to avenge his death.

One of the puzzlers for me about this play is the reason why Hamlet then chooses to fake insanity. It allows Hamlet to continually bait Claudius and Gertrude without consequences, but otherwise does not make sense to me.

An interesting point raised in the introduction of my version of the Collected Works is that Polonius, in appearance and behavior, is meant to be William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The claustrophobic feeling in the play of not being able to trust anyone, of being spied on (depicted marvelously in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart), reflects the paranoid nature of Tudor society because of the prevalence of espionage at that time.

Of course, Hamlet’s musings on suicide, death, and the nature of revenge are a major focus of the play. An undoubted message seems to be of the unintended consequences of actions, particularly of revenge. Hamlet and Laertes are bent on revenge, but in obtaining it, they manage to wipe out both their families.

I have seen Hamlet played as a drooping figure of indecision, but I don’t think this is a correct interpretation. Hamlet is caught on the crux of a dilemma. He wants to do what is right but knows that whatever action he chooses, the results will not be pretty. Hence, the inaction.