Hamnet and Harry

While journalists have been speedreading Prince Harry’s memoir, I’ve been reading at a leisurely pace Maggie O’Farrell’s critically acclaimed novel Hamnet. I have no intension of reading Harry’s book and anything I have to say about it comes from reading extracts and summaries in the press.

O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a work of fiction, a point the author makes at the end of the book. It’s based on the lives of real people, William Shakespeare and his family, though more about his long-suffering wife and their children. Hamnet was the bard’s only son, and he died as a child. While the reason for his short life is not truly known, O’Farrell takes the position that the boy died from the plague. We know that the plague, or ‘pestilence’ as it was called then, was in England at that time and that Shakespeare’s own playhouses in London were closed periodically because of the highly contagious scourge. The book is filled with intriguing details of how people in 16th century England lived, with Shakespeare’s wife being something of an herbalist, running her own business of plant-based tinctures and ointments while the medical doctor advises his patients to wear a dead toad around their stomachs. That is, there is a great deal of historical fact in this work of fiction, making it entirely plausible.

Ultimately, Hamnet is about grieving parents and how both deal with their loss. For Shakespeare, Hamnet is honoured with the tragic play Hamlet (incidentally, my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays). O’Farrell makes the case that Hamnet died of the plague even more plausible by noting that despite the intrusion of the disease in people’s lives, none of his plays mentions it. This suggests that Shakespeare was grieving and perhaps too emotionally pain-stricken by the subject of the plague to include it in his works, needing another outlet, the simple renaming of a character. The connections between the Hamlet story and the loss of Hamnet are made in the beautiful and deeply moving final scene of O’Farrell’s book. (No spoilers here.)

Prince Harry’s book is the inverse of this. It seems Harry is trying to dispel the fictions about him spread by the media by writing his ‘true’ account of his life. This is why I’m not going to read his book – I really do not care that much about his life. I watched all six episodes of the Netflix documentary by and about the Sussexes to be a participant in popular culture (and to appreciate the jokes when people made fun of it), and I felt I had enough of the couple’s self-absorbed cooing at each other through soft-focus lenses. Having said that, I am sympathetic with Megan’s experience of the racist and misogynistic press, made worse by uncensored social media postings. Of course, the reader of Harry’s book doesn’t know what is fiction or truth, or Harry’s truth, coloured by selected memories and emotions. This tell-all memoir brings back memories of his mother’s complicity in her biography by Andrew Morton and her interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir.

This unlikely comparison between a brilliant work of literary fiction and a ghost-written celebrity memoir does have one more link worth considering. Hamnet became Hamlet, a revenge tragedy, where the grieving son avenges the death of his father. It could be said that Prince Harry is avenging the death of his mother. I’ll leave that to the psychologists.