‘What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.’
Authors are ostensibly free to write what they like, to approach any subject matter under the comforting cloak of artistry. Nevertheless, there are paths that few dare to tread. One of these paths is fictionalising the life of William Shakespeare. Such an undertaking is daunting; the subject matter is so well-worn that any error is likely to be seen as amateurish, whilst myriad academic studies of the bard mean that a character interpretation is never going to please everyone. Kudos then to Maggie O’Farrell, multi award winning author and surely the best person to land such a project.
Our protagonists are Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, and Hamnet, his son. We join them before fame has impacted upon the family’s lives and before William has moved from Stratford to London in search of fame and glory. I won’t spoil the central point around which the plot rotates for those who don’t know, but a seismic event in the family changes the nature of every relationship in it and threatens to tear the Shakespeares’ marriage apart.
I listened to the audiobook during my commute, and what was immediately striking is the beauty of O’Farrell’s writing. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence is just wonderfully crafted. There isn’t a word wasted, and the world of 1500s Stratford is brought sharply into focus. From the dim glovemaker’s workshop where his sour father toiled, to the bustle and chaos of London, no detail is extraneous – all are put to work in the service of the story.
O’Farrell is not primarily concerned with scene-setting, however. Her characters and their voices push the story forwards and change as events overtake them. O’Farrell trusts us to make our own judgements on complex, fully-formed characters such as Shakespeare and Agnes, resisting the tropes that have served useful (and entertaining) for productions such as ‘Upstart Crow’. We move away from the worn tropes of philandering Shakespeare, dour Agnes, and vicious John and towards a compromise in Stratford and London which is never quite comfortable and therefore closer to real life. The most devastating scene of the book is genuinely difficult to read (or listen to) and will live long in my memory.
I imagine that one of the difficulties in writing about such well known events is that building tension becomes problematic. This is particularly the case with ‘Hamnet’, as said devastating event happens with a substantial portion of the text left. O’Farrell avoids a drop in pace with an examination of how this event shapes William and Agnes’ marriage. This examination came to a conclusion I was not expecting and made for an elegant and uplifting finale.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.