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The Bookblog / 9 May 2022

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The Personal Life in his Plays

We had a great time meeting Maggie O’Farrell at the Stratford Literary Festival in early May 2022. Don’t miss her book, Hamnet — a fictionalised account of the short life and tragic death of Shakespeare’s only male child.

Maggie O’Farrell talked about how — until now — the story of Hamnet has largely been overlooked. Certainly Shakespeare spent much of his career in London, frantically writing and performing while his wife and children were at home in Stratford-upon-Avon. But perhaps he was not so emotionally distant from his family as some scholars suggest. In the 16th and 17th Centuries (when spelling was less formalised) the names Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable. Could it be a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote his master work, Hamlet, shortly after the loss of his son Hamnet? Hamlet is a play motivated by a father-son relationship, and filled with profound introspection and contemplation of the nature of life and the meaning of death.

Reflecting on Maggie O’Farrell’s talk, I noticed there are other echoes of Shakespeare’s personal life in his work. Hamnet was a twin, outlived by his sister Judith. The plot of Twelfth Night revolves around a twin sister who believes her twin brother has died. This play was also written shortly after Hamnet died.

Prior to both of these plays, one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, The Comedy of Errors, focuses on the joyful confusion, chaos and comedy caused by twins. At the time Shakespeare wrote this, his own twins were a boisterous eight or nine years old.

Maggie O’Farrell was in Stratford to plant Rowan trees for twins Hamnet and Judith, near to William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway’s own graves. After four centuries, a family is reunited in memorial.

Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works on Bookwise.

Hamlet (1601) : in which Hamlet, the son, survives his father — written around two or three years after Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died.

Twelfth Night (1600) : in which Viola seeks her twin brother Sebastian, whom she presumes dead — written a year before Hamlet.

The Comedy of Errors (1593) : Shakespeare’s play about the farcical comedy that twins bring — written while his own twins were young and full of life.

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