Grief that inspired the Bard

Grief that inspired the Bard: How the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet aged 11 may have led to one of the most celebrated plays ever written

  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is set on a hazy summer’s day in Stratford 1596
  • He is the young, day-dreamy son of William Shakespeare, who dies from plague
  • Shakespeare appears in the grief-stricken narrative, ‘all tinder and flint’ 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press £20, 384 pp)

Hamnet

by Maggie O’Farrell

(Tinder Press £20, 384 pp)

This is Maggie O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction, and, as with her contemporary work, it’s the ebb and flow of emotions that carry this heartbreaking, beautifully written story along on its melancholy current.

On a hazy summer’s day in Stratford, 1596, Hamnet, the young, day-dreamy son of William Shakespeare, is searching his empty household for help for his ailing twin, Judith. She survives, but Hamnet (whose name is interchangeable with Hamlet) dies from the plague, and his family falls apart.

Shakespeare appears in the grief-stricken narrative, ‘all tinder and flint, sending out sparks to ignite and kindle’, but his wife Agnes is the beating heart of the novel.

Gifted with second sight, adept at herbal cures, she is her family’s anchor. Hamnet’s death unmoors her from all she knows and loves: ‘She, who can hear the dead, the unspoken, the unknown . . . she cannot find, cannot locate the spirit of her own child’.

Devastatingly good.

On a hazy summer’s day in Stratford, 1596, Hamnet, the young, day-dreamy son of William Shakespeare, is searching his empty household for help for his ailing twin, Judith

William Shakespeare (pictured) appears in the grief-stricken narrative, ‘all tinder and flint, sending out sparks to ignite and kindle’

CONJURE WOMEN

by Afia Atakora

(4th Estate £14.99, 416 pp)

CONJURE WOMEN by Afia Atakora (4th Estate £14.99, 416 pp)

Set on a ruined plantation in the rural South, this lush, engrossing, haunting debut is the coming-of-age story of former slave Rue, whose world is upended in the chaotic aftermath of the American Civil War.

Rue is struggling with the legacy of her mother’s power — May Belle was a skilled midwife with arcane knowledge of cures and curses, a voodoo gift that set her apart.

Rue is reluctantly following her mother’s path, while keeping a secret which is vital to the protection of the emancipated, sequestered community, and involves Varnia, the daughter of the plantation owner. The ill-omened birth of strange baby Bean, a tide of sickness that fells the other children, and the arrival of a charismatic, wandering preacher, makes Rue dangerously vulnerable in the battle between old ways of living and new ways of believing as her community’s attitude to Rue slowly tilts from reluctant admiration to suspicions of witchery.

THE COLOURS by Juliet Bates (Fleet £16.99, 384 pp)

THE COLOURS

by Juliet Bates

(Fleet £16.99, 384 pp)

Juliet Bates studied art and art history and there is a delightful observational delicacy to her prose, a careful cataloguing of the ever-changing shades of the waves and the vivid red of the ‘clarty’ sand of Teesby, where the novel is set. It’s a quality that perfectly befits the two main characters — Ellen, who sees the world’s colours in a strange and unusual way, and her son Jack, who becomes a painter and an art teacher.

Theirs is a story of illness, estrangement and misunderstanding. Sectioned after a traumatic event at the beach, in 1931, Ellen spends most of her life in a mental hospital, while, during WWII, lost boy Jack tries to create ‘perfect scale models of bits of the world so that the real thing could be flattened’ at the same time as warring with memories of his mother, and her hopes of a reconciliation.

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