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On Greatness and Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet

William Shakespeare is synonymous with greatness. Scholars might dispute the authorship of the work attributed to this name, but the name automatically conjures an idea of unsurpassed genius. Shall we compare thee, Mr. Shakespeare? No, for to do so would be somehow to limit you and to reveal our own smallness.

Harold Bloom, in his collected thoughts on the works of the great one, writes:

"The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us"

And the greatest of these plays? Though some argument persists, many would choose Hamlet.

What does a writer do when the story she has to tell is his story? How does a writer face greatness and insist she has something of greatness to add? Maggie O'Farrell admits to wrestling with these questions as she considered what would become Hamnet, commenting at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that "his plays are untouchable, really" and acknowledging that she perhaps wrote three other books in an effort to avoid this one. But Hamnet persisted, and in it, O'Farrell has written one of the most powerful novels of the year, worthy of every accolade it receives.

At its base, Hamnet is a work of historical fiction, framed by what little is known of the death of William Shakespeare's son. Those familiar with the history have long connected this son with the tragic play of nearly the same name, noting that Hamlet and Hamnet would have been used interchangeably at the time. Scholars have excavated what they could from this detail, using it to explicate the play and the questions behind its creation. For O'Farrell, this synchrony snagged in her imagination, sending her not to the stage but to the home and family behind the curtain. Driven by a respect born of the realization that these were real people, she dove into the research that would ultimately open the story to her - and to us - in unexpected ways.

Looking into what documentation exists, O'Farrell began to feel that Shakespeare's wife, known to us as Anne Hathaway, has been sorely diminished by history. As the novel took shape, it became clear that Agnes (an alternate spelling of Anne, used by Hathaway's father in his will) would be its heart. While the novel is named for the son, the story would be one of love and of grief and of loss and of carrying on, between and betwixt siblings, spouses, lovers, fathers, and - most incredibly - mothers and their children.

Many have already pointed out the clever turns of this novel, the way O'Farrell never uses the playwright's name, the chapter that follows the pestilence on its devastating meander across the land, the richness of detail throughout. These elements, tremendous as they are, run second to the greater triumph of this novel: its emotional truth.

There are two kinds of emotional levers an author can employ, one vastly more accessible and thus more common. In the more common version, the reader is introduced to characters, comes to know them, perhaps even to care for them, and then something tragic or terrifying or unspeakably difficult happens, and the reader is shocked into emotion. The reader may cry for those characters and that pain, but then the story is over, and the reader steps back to real life. The feelings stay in the story.

In the second, less common version, the reader already knows what will happen. The events are not a surprise. You know the boy dies. And despite your best efforts to protect yourself against this truth, when it happens, and it always happens, you are caught up in its great truth which is the great truth of us all. Every birth carries with it the possibility, indeed the certainty, of a death. With Hamnet, Maggie O'Farrell has used these characters, these events, to show us our own loves, our own loss, and the grief that accompanies both. The feelings raised by this book, they linger. They are not bound up in the story. Instead, the story releases them.

Here is Agnes, explaining the unthinkable:

"She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he?"

The question rings out. Like Hamlet's "To be or not to be," it is the question of one person's confrontation with individual mortality, and it is every question asked of every life and every death. That is the question, indeed.

O'Farrell, of course, could not have known that her novel set at the close of the16th century as the Black Plague advanced would be released just as a new pestilence was circling the globe. She could not have foreseen the ways fear and uncertainty would color so much of her reader's lives. Some have credited the timeliness of the events as partial cause for the book's success. I would argue this novel's greatness lies exactly with that of Shakespeare's plays: it is true, it is universal, it is not bound by time and space and circumstance. It is not that we are at this moment experiencing such a grief; it is that we are, ever, always, grieving. And ever, always, loving. The confluence of these two rivers is the reality of life. To drink of their waters is to be, always, both.

Shakespeare knew this. And here, Maggie O'Farrell has proven that she knows it as well.


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