I never expected to read a book about the plague during a pandemic. I’ve done my best to keep away from dark thoughts, considering illness or death. But, when I began Hamnet, checked out as an ebook from our local library, I knew I needed a copy of my own…a copy through which I could meander at my own pace, relishing every well-chosen word, not worrying about the due date when the library would whisk it back unwillingly from me.
Maggie O’Farrell imagines Shakespeare’s life for us, while never revealing his name. She brings forth his wife, his parents, his home in Stratford more vividly than any play could reveal. Most importantly of all, she brings his son, Hamnet, to life. Even in his death, for we see the excruciating effect it has on his mother, his father, and their marriage.
In the opening pages he comes down the stairs, looking for someone, anyone, to help him. For his twin sister, Judith, is ill. They had been playing with the kittens in the yard, and then Judith had to lay down, and now she is not only pale, and clammy; there are two buboes showing under her skin. Bumps with an ominous threat of death.
Hamnet’s illness takes his mother by surprise, for she had been concocting remedies from her plants, her herbs, her tinctures, to help her daughter. And when Hamnet dies, she is full of self-blame for not seeing it, for not being able to prevent it.
I felt her recriminations towards herself as fiercely as my own. What mother doesn’t wish to take her child’s suffering upon herself, doesn’t long to pave a path for a long, fulfilling life for her child, doesn’t imagine all the thoughts about what could have been? For me, Maggie O’Farrell’s genius in this book was in brilliantly portraying Hamnet’s mother, even more so than his famous father.
It broke my heart, while making me feel not quite so alone in my own motherly sorrows.