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Four Shakespearean-Era Tributes Hidden in Maggie O’Farrell’s Award Winning “Hamnet”


Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet sitting on a grey lounge chair.

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Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020 for Hamnet and if you have read her novel, it is easy to see why. It is not easy to take on a literary great like William Shakespeare, yet O’Farrell does so with grace. The story of Hamnet is gripping as it chronicles Shakespeare’s career and fictionalises the events leading up to him writing his famous play Hamlet.

Rather than simply talk about the novel’s merits I wanted to dig a bit deeper into O’Farrell’s text and talk about some of the Shakespearean clues and tributes that were made throughout the text. Let me know if you picked up on any of these and if there are more!

TWINS

Two identical pigeons sitting on two street lamps.

The theme of twins, and the doppelgänger appears throughout Shakespeare’s plays. In Hamnet, O’Farrell talks about Shakespeare’s children, two of them twins. Hamnet, sadly dies of the plague in O’Farrell’s novel and many have wondered if the theme of twins that appears in some of Shakespeare’s works are because of his children.

Two famous plays that also have the theme of twins are Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors. In Twelfth Night twins are lost and separated on an island and in The Comedy of Errors the twins are separated at birth.

GENDER SWAPS

Hand holding a crystal ball that reflects the sky and the land.

Gender bending has been a part of Shakespearean plays from the beginning. In O’Farrell’s novel, Hamnet hold his sister’s hand, Judith, and wills the plague to be transferred to him so that his sister might live. In the scene, the twins seem to morph into each other until it is Hamnet sick in bed and Judith is healthy by his side. It seems clear that O’Farrell weaved this scene into her narrative to pay respect to this trope.

As many of you would know, gender swaps and gender bending was often used on the stage because women were not allowed to be actors in Shakespearean times. Some plays that use this trope are:

THE FLEA

X-ray image of a flea.

The Flea” is a famous poem by John Donne. Donne lived between 1572–1631. Shakespeare lived between 1564–1616. The two were contemporaries and I am a fan of both. In O’Farrell’s novel there is a beautiful scene which follows the short life of a flea that jumps from an import ship into the Shakespearen home which eventually brings the plague to England.

I cannot help but assume that O’Farrell wanted to pay homage to this very famous poem and also acknowledge some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In the poem, “The Flea” Donne also talks about a flea biting two people and that they have become closer because of it. It is a strange love-poem from a man trying to convince his lover to engage in carnal relations with him.

THE PLAGUE, UNSPOKEN

Man in an old-fashioned plague mask with a beak holding three candles. One is not lit.

Considering that Shakespeare lived through outbreaks of the plague that spread throughout Europe from 1536 on wards, many people have suggested that Shakespeare doesn’t really talk about illness and the plague that much in his plays. However, the plague appears in subtle ways throughout Shakespeare’s works and I would like to share a few of them with you.

In Romeo and Juliet Mecrutio’s dying line is “A plague on both your houses.” Similarly, in King Lear, Lear tells his daughter Goneril, “Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood.” Lastly, Olivia from Twelfth Night, talking about falling in love says, “How now?/ Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”

O’Farrell takes the issues of illness and the plague head on in Hamnet and it brings a fresh perspective to the way of life in the 1500s.

If you love all things Shakespeare then “Hamnet” is the book for you. I loved researching these facts for you and having a little literary trip down memory lane. It seems like a lifetime ago that I was studying Shakespeare and Donne in high school and through my undergraduate degrees. As always, share the reading love.

Get your copy of Hamnet here.

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