Shakespeare’s life is a great mystery but we do know that he had a son, Hamnet, who died at the age 11, possibly from the plague. Four years after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, maybe his greatest masterpiece. In an extraordinary new novel called Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell tries to reimagine Hamnet’s death and its aftermath. The beating heart of the novel is neither Shakespeare nor even Hamnet, however, but Shakespeare’s wife called Agnes. She was the one who took care of the family, which stayed behind in Stratford, while Shakespeare spent most of the time in London.
The way O’Farrell writes is so palpable, so arresting that I felt transported back into those times, almost being able to sensually experience that distant historical reality in its full corporeality. By far the most devastating to read was the scene of Hamnet’s death and burial. The coldness and finality of these words were chilling to the bone:
“And there, by the fire, held in the arms of his mother, in the room in which he learnt to crawl, to eat, to walk, to speak, Hamnet takes his last breath.
He draws it in, he lets it out.
Then there is silence, stillness. Nothing more.”
I thought of Hamnet while visiting an exhibition Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures last month in Zurich. “The Boy Pharaoh” also died at a very young age. He did not produce an heir – both his daughters were stillborn and their tiny mummies were placed in tiny sarcophagi and buried with their father’s. Admiring the exhibition’s sheer grandeur, I was haunted by two images – the face of Hamnet before Agnes covered it with white cloth -“She cannot cover him the first time. She cannot do it the second” – and Tutankhamun’s magnificent gold mask. This “imperishable surrogate face” was fashioned in the likeness of Osiris. From the description at the exhibition:
“The animated eyes are light quartz inlaid with obsidian for the pupils. Set on the forehead of the striped headdress are two divine emblems: the vulture’s head of Upper Egypt and the serpent’s body of Lower Egypt. … The inscription on the back of the mask contains a text which equates the sensory organs with gods…”
While Hamnet’s body is wrapped in a white shroud and buried – “The grave is a shock. A deep, dark rip in the earth, as if made by the careless slash of a giant claw.” – no less than four shrines inscribed with sacred writings are nested around the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. With countless objects ranging from his throne to board games, the pharaoh embarked on a symbolic journey towards the immortal existence as a God. The texts on the walls of the second shrine are partly written in coded or secret hieroglyphs and contain very mysterious depictions from an unknown book of the Netherworld. According to a French scholar, the second shrine depicts how “the souls of
the dead rising up and following the sun are powers which refill and empower the
sun during the night.” Osiris, the god of the dead , and the Sun become one by forming “The Solar Osirian Unity.”
Meanwhile, Agnes picks the flowers for his son’s last journey:
“Agnes selects rue, comfrey, yellow-eyed chamomile. She takes purple lavender and thyme, a handful of rosemary. Not heartsease, because Hamnet disliked the smell. Not angelica, because it is too late for that and it did not help, did not perform its task, did not save him, did not break the fever. Not valerian, for the same reason. Not milk thistle, for the leaves are so spiny and sharp, enough to pierce the skin, to bring forth drops of blood. She tucks the dried plants into the sheet, nestles them next to his body, where they whisper their comfort to him.”
Finally, both the book and the exhibition made me meditate on the difference (or lack thereof) between truth and fiction. O’Farrell’s book is a work of creative fantasy, for we do not have any documents which would support any of the events she describes in her novel. All we know is that Hamnet died prematurely, which is a mere footnote to the biography of the Bard. And yet her book undeniably breathes the truth. The written world becomes palpable, substantial, solid.
On the other hand, the Tutankhamun Exhibition that is currently touring the world does not contain a single object that Howard Carter so famously discovered in 1922, uttering the words that would go down in history – “I see wonderful things“. The truth is that all the wonderful things at the exhibition are meticulously handcrafted replicas. The originals are way too vulnerable to tour the world and are now safe in Cairo.
The way the exhibition recreates the moment of the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun is quite magical. What we the visitors see is what appeared in front of Howard Carter – we are walking through the tomb of the king with its different chambers.
Since the usual glass cases are unnecessary, it is possible to immerse oneself in the experience. The emotional truth and the enthusiasm it generates is quite exhilarating.
Support my blog
If you appreciate my writing, consider donating to support my work. Thank you very much in advance.