Hamnet – Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy?

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain – Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother

What if a writer turns personal loss into artistic gold?  Can art imitate life when it involves the death of a child?

Hamnet Shakespeare was the only son of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare.  Hamnet died aged 11, in the middle of a plague.  His twin, Judith, lived beyond her 77th birthday.  Susanna, their older sister, was 66 when she died. 

The twins were raised mostly by their mother.  It seems Shakespeare wasn’t there for Hamnet’s birth, nor his death in 1596.  After his son’s funeral, he left Stratford-upon-Avon to return to his burgeoning theatre career in London. 

His histories and comedies were written for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company – later The King’s Men, when James I (James VI of Scotland) took the throne in 1603.

Shakespeare’s plays matured towards tragedies including Hamlet, written at the turn of the century.  The Bard, who also acted in the company, became a success.  His works were popular with audiences and he made money.

I’ve just read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s great new book, a fictionalised account of the Shakespeare family.  It could have been called Agnes – O’Farrell uses Anne Hathaway’s other name – because it centres on the fascinating character of Shakespeare’s wife. 

Agnes is deeply attached to nature.  Her mother appeared out of the forest and went by the name of a tree.  As Agnes’s free spirits grow, she becomes a dispenser of herbal cures and a visionary, able to divine what is hidden within a person.

When Shakespeare (at times a walk-on character, his name never given) first sees her, he’s captivated.  On her fist sits a kestrel.  Agnes is William’s polar opposite – instinct and raw emotion to his literate, Latin learning.

The passages in Hamnet, following the boy’s death, made me cry.  Agnes’s boundless grief is achingly detailed.  She cannot accept her husband’s long absence and apparent lack of remorse.

This culminates in her shock discovery at the title of his new play.  Within 4 years of Hamnet’s death.  Just one letter different in the name.  How could her husband do that?  Why would he?  What has the play to do with their lost son?

What’s in a name?  In the play Hamlet, the protagonist’s name, like the story, is of Scandinavian origin.  He’s a Danish prince in his twenties, not a pre-adolescent commoner in England.

Hamlet is about lots of things as well as death.  Like many plays of the period, revenge is at its heart.  So, art thou to revenge, says the ghost of the murdered king – also called Hamlet – to his son, giving the plot its driving force.

Free will versus fate is also part of Hamlet. By opposing a sea of troubles, can you end them?  Or is there a divinity that shapes our ends? 

Incest, too, has been seen as a key to the play.  Freudian interpretations, including Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, are common.  Gertrude marries her brother-in-law and Hamlet gets very close to his mother.  Freud’s biographer even suggested Ophelia is overly fixated on her father, Polonius.

Freud was going to call his Oedipus theory the Hamlet Complex.  He may have misread Shakespeare just as – says Stephen Fry – he misread the classics.  The point about Oedipus is that he didn’t know Jocasta was his mother when he married her.

Is Hamlet Shakespeare’s second most-performed – and longest – play because it’s so complex?  No single interpretation catches it.  (The most-performed is A Midsummer’s Night Dream, by the way, and Macbeth the shortest.)

Though direct links between Hamnet and the substance of his father’s play may be few, it’s hard to believe that Shakespeare’s grief didn’t feed into Hamlet and the other works – such as King Lear which ends with the crazed, grieving Lear carrying in his arms the corpse of his youngest daughter. The plays are the things wherein he caught the spirit of his son.

The relationship between his child’s death and his output is not as direct as, say, Eric Clapton’s lament for his dead son, Tears in Heaven.  Victor Hugo, on the other hand, couldn’t write for years after his daughter drowned.

Did Shakespeare channel his anguish into not just his plays and poems, but also the exacting demands of running a company?  Was he an alchemist of his own grief, processing it into a prolific complex of ideas and action through writing, acting and producing?  Is it even a secret of his success?

The bubonic plague hit London hard.  Theatres, including the 3000 capacity Globe, closed – on and off – for more than half of the first decade of the 17th century.  Shakespeare, like Brecht in exile, wrote some of his best plays when there was scant prospect of staging them.

Not one to let a crisis go to waste, he kept writing.  King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were scripted in 1605-6.  Lear says to Goneril, another daughter: Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood.

Shakespeare was absent, but not neglectful of his family.  In 1597, with his new-found theatrical wealth, he bought New Place, a large house in the heart of Stratford.  Anne/Agnes, Susanna and Judith made it their comfortable, spacious home.  It wasn’t until 1613 – after the Globe had burned down – that William himself came back from London to settle there with them.

After retiring to Stratford, William lived just 3 more years.  He died on his 52nd birthday in April 1616.  Anne/Agnes, 8 years his senior, survived until 1623, when she was 67.

Back to Hamnet.  By seeing it all through Agnes’s eagle eyes, O’Farrell completes the circle between the son’s death and the play.  Towards the end of the book, Agnes ventures to London and watches her husband’s drama in the newly built Globe Theatre.  He also plays Hamlet senior (as Shakespeare really did, the ghost being one of his regular roles). 

Agnes sees the two Hamlets together, father and son, and understands that her husband has brought Hamnet back to life, in the only way he can.

Earlier in the book, there’s a vivid description of a physician who visits Agnes to dispense a dried toad, to tie to the stomach of her plague-ridden child.  The physician wears a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird.

Plague.  Closed theatres.  Face masks.  Bizarre cures.  Thousands of deaths.  Who says Shakespeare’s time has nothing in common with our own?

by Paul BassettGlasgow, May 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

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