Hamnet, Humanity, and the Duality of Love

Hamnet, Humanity, and the Duality of Love

People are not simple beings. We are nuanced, convoluted, conflicted; we render trails mingled with cutting zeals and searing joys, with tender agonies and cherished regrets. We feel beyond the bounds of logic and the strictures of correlation. A mother does not suffer because it is convenient, does not care because it will garner reward, does not weep for her own pain. A son does not sacrifice in bravery, a couple does not tread forth for the course runs smooth. Humans, as Maggie O’Farrell so poignantly conveys in Hamnet, wind hurt and delight on the same spool. We revel, imperfect and noble and squalid, in the duality of our passions. A family resided in a home on Henley Street. They bore names, kept accounts, wrote plays, sent letters. This much we know to be true—it is factual. O’Farrell, though, in visceral, vital, velvet verse, grants these characters life—and does so through that most intimate, eternal, dyad pillar of our being: love.

A naïve Latin tutor ventures curiously into the arms of a mysterious woman at Hewlands. “She takes hold of the skin and muscle between his thumb and forefinger and presses. The grip is firm, insistent, oddly intimate, on the edge of painful” (34). This first encounter, this kernel of eros, introduces one of three interpersonal strains at the core of Hamnet, that of romantic partners and parents: the Father and Agnes. O’Farrell conveys a certain soreness accompanying new love. Theirs is a rapid yet forsaken affair. “It makes his head spin. The certainty of it. He doesn’t think anyone has ever touched him there, in that way, before,” she continues (34). This merging of hand with hand, akin to the gestures of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” conjures sentiments of wisdom, of mutual understanding, but also of the precarious, erratic temperament of profound connection. The Father and Agnes can generate awesome joy, can bring forth lovely creations unto the world; that same mandate, though, carries with it the power to inflict great suffering when the tether is strained. By Part II of the novel, Hamnet has died. The Father returns from a spell in London, unnaturally affected. Agnes knows he has cheated. No longer are they a fluid body, no longer does space contort to support their mingling. “The silence swells between them; it expands and wraps itself around them; it acquires shape and form and tendrils, which wave off into the air, like the threads trailing from a broken web . . . For the first time, she feels no urge to touch him, to put her hands on him” (262). Love, O’Farrell displays, is a wavering current, a tug-of-war, a tension between unfettered elation, artless marriage, and inevitable disappointment. Agnes would bear no pain at her husband’s impropriety had she not held him closer than any other. Pain presents itself—not as a consequence—but as an indelible half of love. 

Stronger, still, is the bond between twin sister and brother, Judith and Hamnet. As the former falls ill with the plague, O’Farrell says of the boy that he “feel[s] again the sensation he has had all his life: that she is the other side of him . . . How can he live without her? He cannot. It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting barley to grow without rain” (167). Born of the same womb, raised with a telepathic bond. Theirs is a fondness that kept safe those gentle creatures burrowed in childhood; they bounded upon the roof together, pulled japes on their elders together, hid kittens together. For this pair, the brutal face of love onsets suddenly—a tidal force of all-consuming agony, of instant loss. Hamnet’s love for his sister, infinitely palpable, defies calculation, indeed, bucks reality. When death comes knocking on Henley Street, the boy exchanges his life for the survival of his sister. Judith lives. Perhaps in the greatest summation of human love, O’Farrell savors that act. She permits the reader to ponder whether the surreal extents of tenderness supersede the confines of the real—as if, to encapsulate the extremes of attachment and of grief, we must allow our minds to wander in a realm beyond reason. Earnest, pure, striking, the love between Judith and Hamnet once more conveys the chilling beauty of joy and pain interconverting to form a piercing gesture of magical selflessness.

The defining relationship of this novel, though, is between parent and kin. O’Farrell takes the reader on a heart-wrenching journey through the emotional trials of a mother grappling with mortality. Agnes—she who knows the future, she who has taken every precaution, she who values her children as much as life itself—meets a foe more powerful than all the know-how, compassion, and parental strength our tragic heroine can muster. In a harrowing rendition of panic, of fear emanating from the prospect of severed love, O’Farrell writes of a frantic human, desperately, longingly, lovingly tending to her fading son: 

Agnes does not leave his side. She swabs his brow, his limbs with the damp cloth. She packs salt in the bed with him. She lays a posy of valerian and swans’ feathers on his chest, for comfort, for solace. Hamnet’s fever climbs and climbs, the buboes swell tighter and tighter. She lifts his hand, which is a grim blue-grey along its side, and presses it to her cheek. She would try anything, she would do anything. She would open her own veins, her own body cavity, and give him her blood, her heart, her organs, if it would do the slightest good. (209)

We watch this pietá with sinking hearts, we feel a pain which defies logical language. Agnes’ is not an utterable hurt, it ventures beyond the bounds of English. O’Farrell can merely express that potent, guttural, primal, maternal agony with the pain of death itself. To be a parent is to know that deepest kind of love, that paralyzing, all-consuming kind of love, that love that renders self-preservation itself an afterthought. Silent, wordless is the loss a parent feels for her child. It is immutable, ineffable; it is, in a perfectly imperfect word, human. 

Agnes “fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water” (10). She gave all to him, and he all to her. This is the bond of a mother and son. It knows limitless joys and bottomless sorrows, each an immovable reflection of the other. 

A family resided in a home on Henley Street. They bore names, kept accounts, wrote plays, sent letters. We don’t know much else. O’Farrell conjured lives, pursuits, personalities. She fabricated backstories and struggles. She formed arms and hands and knuckles. She realized all the sun-dappled peaks and quiet troughs of the human experience. She made a father shriek, a son trip, a mother lie, a daughter seek. No, these characters never lived; they never will. This is fiction. But in a much more real sense, Hamnet bears a truth beyond any other: every mind, every heart, every palm—dead, living, or yet to live—carries a story. It is bright and it is dark and it is flawless and it is messy and it is whole and it is broken and it is fleeting and it is unbounded. It is human.