Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet

Taking full advantage of the long weekend here in the US, I read my softback copy of Maggie O’Farrell’s new book lakeside. It’s easy to find praise for this fictional story of Shakespeare’s domestic life in Stratford-upon-Avon, so I won’t dwell on the wonderful prose and endlessly interesting historical references.

Since this is a blog about home economics, I can’t help but key into the detailed transactions which are laid out in the book. Specifically the family relationships and obligations which landed Shakespeare in London. For without the The Globe to provide the stage, and the city to provide the audience, it is hard to say how the bard’s career would have evolved.

As a lad of eighteen, Will marries a woman eight years his senior. She has a dowry and a faithful brother to support her wishes. He comes from an established merchant family that has some financial struggles. They are both odd ducks-

Will’s mother Mary is required to make room for her daughter-in-law, to take her into her household and help with the care of the grandchildren. And it is Mary who objects the loudest at the plan for Will to set up an extension of the family glove business in London.

…At which Mary could say three things: Agnes is no girl. She is a woman who enticed a much younger boy, our boy, into marriage for the worst possible reason. And: You forgive her too much, and only because of that dowry of hers. Don’t think I don’t see this. And: I am also from the country, brought up on a farm, but do I run about the place in the night and bring wild animals into the house? No, I do not. Some of us, she will sniff to her husband, know how to conduct ourselves.

“It would help matters,” her son is saying, airily, insistently, “help all of us, to expand Father’s business like this. It’s an inspired idea of his. God knows things in this town have become difficult enough for him. If I were to take the trade to London, I am certain I might be able to “

Before even realizing that her patience has slipped out from under her, like ice from under her feet, she is up, she is standing, she is gripping her son by the arm, she is shaking it, she is saying to him, “This whole scheme is nothing but foolishness. I have no idea what put this notion into your father’s head. When have you ever shown the slightest interest in his business? When have you proved yourself worthy of this kind of responsibility? London, indeed!

The plan had been instigated by Agnes’ faithful brother. There is some outstanding obligation between the families which allows him to influence the father, to allow for Will’s departure. It is the extraction of a chit which he plays on behalf of his sister.

What if William Shakespeare, thought to be the greatest dramatist in the English language, had not made it to London? What if his life had been denied matrimony and fatherhood? What if one of the players in the economic distribution of inheritance and obligations to marriage and family had set an imbalance in the transactions?

What Maggie O’Farrell accomplishes is a flushing out of the possible infrastructures which may have contributed to a brilliant man reaching a pinnacle of performance.

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