Introducing Shakespeare’s Wife

The title of Maggie O’Farrell’s book, Hamnet, informs you the story is about Hamnet Shakespeare. The hanging descriptor below the title disagrees. It says this is A Novel of the Plague. Both are disgusting lies.

OK – perhaps that’s an over-reaction. Ms. O’Farrell’s story does mention Hamnet and the plague frequently, but this is Anne Hathaway’s story, even though in the novel she is referred to as Agnes – the name her father called her. And as with Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies where the women are the most intriguing characters (with the exceptions of King Lear and Hamlet), Agnes is the star.

Agnes is a healer. She specializes in herbs and natural remedies. Her uncommon knowledge and skills are welcome and worrisome. To the Stratford villagers, it is known that Agnes is “fierce and savage, that she puts curses on people, that she can cure anything but also cause anything.” Shakespeare’s mother describes Agnes as “[t]his creature, this woman, this elf, this, sorceress, this forest sprite”. So she’s a feminist.

To Shakespeare, she is “peerless”. But she is not to be trifled with. She is “[s]omeone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance.”

Hamnet is a slow burn. It is set mostly in a sleepy and suffocating (for Shakespeare) Stratford. At times the story drags, but the themes of motherhood and grief are vital. They drive the story to a touching and satisfying conclusion.

So much mythology surrounds Shakespeare, but little is actually known about him. Much less is known about his family. This gives a talented novelist like Ms. O’Farrell an advantage. She can create these characters, make them real, and no one can quibble with her. Wisely, she never mentions Shakespeare’s name. That would only distract the reader with the myth. And this story isn’t about him anyway.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

The Winter’s Tale – A Mosaic Play

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is neither history, comedy, or tragedy. So no one knew what to call it, because apparently, back then, those were the only choices. As a result, the scholars (both of them) argued (what scholars do best) and finally decided to flip a coin. The play has been called a romance ever since, which doesn’t tell us much about the play but does tell us about how scholars are shockingly lazy thinkers.

We would categorize The Winter’s Tale as one of Shakespeare’s mosaic plays (similar to The Tempest), because it has a lot going on. There is crude humor, intense psychological drama, dancing, singing, storms, shipwrecks, and a bear (not the kind you see in Provincetown – though that would be awesome). The play’s first half is tragic. The second half is largely comedic. One entire act is pastoral. In short, it is a pageant – like Block Island on a Saturday evening in August.

The Winter’s Tale is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s later plays. As such, it incorporates many themes and elements from his earlier works: the perpetual fear of being cuckolded, all-consuming jealousy, a punitive patriarchy, forbidden love, and superior women inexplicably in love with inferior men. The play opens with a charming scene of two childhood friends (Leontes, the king of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the king of Bohemia) near the end of a happy reunion. Suddenly and irrationally, Leontes fears his wife, Hermione, has been “sluiced” and “his pond fished by his neighbor (Polixenes).” This concern is delusional, but Leontes convinces himself that he has been cuckolded. The resulting crazed jealousy causes Leontes to lose everyone in his family. And we are only half way through the play. The second half is devoted to a chastened and sorrowful Leontes getting what is left of his family back.

Autolycus saves the play from tragedy. He is a charismatic scoundrel that lies and steals his way across Bohemia. “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive.” And, shamelessly, he thrives. “Ha, ha, what a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!” Autolycus is not trustworthy, and he certainly is no gentleman. But he is a delight, in part, because he immediately follows the gut-wrenching first half, and he brings song and mischief – both of which are desperately needed at this point. Autolycus is humorous, but he is not a clown. He is too intelligent and self-aware for that. “Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.” In this sense, he is a cousin of the peerless Falstaff. And the play benefits mightily from his presence.

The Winter’s Tale is frequently remembered because it contains one of Shakespeare’s few stage directions – the glorious “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Over the centuries, it has gone in and out of style. This is something we do not understand, because the play is so much more than a “romance” or a man-eating bear (so maybe it is a Provincetown bear). It is a pageant that belongs just below the top tier of Shakespeare’s plays.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor