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O'Farrell's Hamnet & Judith an overwhelming work

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“We know what we are but now not what we may be.”
William Shakespeare Hamlet 4.3

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I have to tip my hat to the Owen Sound Little Theatre that came up with the brilliant idea of performing Shakespeare at Kelso in the summer (if we are ever allowed to gather in larger outdoor groups). Shakespeare plays well outside. I remember watching many times and many performances out-of-doors, ranging from Boulder, Colorado to a green-grassed bowl in Toronto.

I hadn’t thought of the Bard for some time until I sat down with Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet & Judith (Knopf Canada, $24.95). What a novel! O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in Wales and now lives in Edinburgh. Her debut novel, After You’d Gone, was followed up by a host of other good fictions. O’Farrell topped it all off with her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am. Her works are well worth finding. She is such an impressive writer.

O’Farrell takes readers back to 1580 when a young, penniless Latin tutor fell in love with an eccentric young woman (she carries a hawk on her shoulder.) She becomes pregnant by the tutor, marries him (she is much older) and bears him several children including the twins, Hamnet (read Hamlet) and Judith. Mother Agnes (read Ann) settles down on Henley Street in Stratford where she becomes a devoted mother and a force in her husband’s life.

His (name is never mentioned in the novel) father, John, is somewhat of a disgraced glover who was once a city official in Stratford while mother Mary gets along getting along. The Latin tutor talks his father into a load of gloves that he takes to London to sell. Money comes back. In the meantime, Hamnet and Judith both contract bubonic plague, Judith lives, Hamnet dies. Mother is devastated, the Latin tutor (who leaves London for Stratford) is also.

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Years later and still grieving her loss, Agnes grows older but wealthier buoyed up by an inflow of money made in London’s theatres by her Latin tutor of a husband. And then she hears he has written a play – Hamlet. Off she goes to London where she crouches with the audience in the pit, listening. All she hears is two men talking to each other. As Agnes begins to leave she hears the name, Hamlet. And stays.

Hamlet is only one of William Shakespeare’s great plays. The novel made me shudder in recognition of a man who (although five centuries have passed) was a genius. I do not think that in the recent past, I have been more overwhelmed by a single work of fiction than Hamnet & Judith. Get your name down at your local public library (the book is bound to be popular) and find out for yourself the power of Maggie O’Farrell.

Once I began on Hamnet & Judith, I went to my new book shelf and found James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (Penguin, $36). What a discovery! I had read Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, before he won some sort of literary prize for Shakespeare in a Divided America.

The introduction is long and a bit self-serving. Still, I never pass over a book’s introduction, nor should you. No matter how extensive, the author usually puts his thesis out there. Read it. Shapiro writes, “Instead of attempting a rushed survey, I have chosen to drill down more deeply into eight defining moments in America’ history.” And he does.

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The moments include John Quincy Adams’ dislike of Othello due to its Black lead, Manifest Destiny in 1845 (the Mexican War), the riots at Astor Place Opera House in 1849, the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (his family included Shakespeare actors Edwin Thomas Booth and Junius Brutus Booth), and the crisis in Immigration in 1916. There are more modern chapters that take on Kiss Me Kate and the roles of women.

Here in Owen Sound in the last years of the 19th century, a women’s Shakespeare reading group was formed as it was in many an up-and-coming Ontario city. Shakespeare was large in those days although his by-now outdated language got in the way. Shapiro’s book, while not extensive, is a bit academic for my likes but it was a firm reminder that the immortal playwright caught America and Canada’s attention with travelling bands of players.

These past days have drifted by. I dislike my mask but banking and grocery stores do not wait. The highlight of the day is hitting my mailbox in Leith to find out if any new books had arrived.

And yesterday, Dennis Bock’s The Good German (HarperCollins. $22.99) came in a package of books. I stayed up reading it. Bock’s prize-winning books include (all reviewed here) Olympia, The Ash Garden, and The Communist’s Daughter. He lives in Toronto.

The Good German is a novel of alternate history. In November 1939, Georg Elser assassinated Adolf Hitler. Hermann Goring assumes the lead and signs a non-aggression pact with President Joseph Kennedy. Then Goring rushes to deliver an atomic bomb that he uses on London that then lies in ruins.

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Georg Elser who is blinded in the atomic bombing, is shipped to Canada where he is quarantined in a hospice near Toronto. Which introduces William Teufel, a German-American who devises a plan to get away from his German heritage. The years go by and America is on a new path, killing off the good Germans, getting rid of the Jews, and turning the country into somewhat of a police state.

There is a lot of nonsense at the end leading through a maze of tunnels that are supposed to remind readers of the Underground Railroad. But Georg goes on, unappreciated for his act of violence against Hitler that led to a fascist state. Maybe Bock had in mind the United States of the past four years – maybe not. But the novel kept my attention far into the night. Read it forewarned.

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