English essay success for Perse student

Lily O’Neill (Upper Sixth) has been highly commended for her essay in the Trinity College Gould Prize competition.

She took on a question based on literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s quote ‘The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker postulates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.’

For her work, Lily considered how author Maggie O’Farrell had taken William Shakespeare’s words and made them her own in her 2020 novel Hamnet, based on the imagined life of the Bard’s son of the same name, who died aged just 11 in 1596, in relation to his tragedy Hamlet.

She said: “I’m passionate about English and of the different questions, I thought this was the most interesting and philosophical. I like a big idea, so I was immediately drawn to it.”

Having already studied Hamlet in Lower Sixth, Lily read Hamnet on the recommendation of English teacher Deborah Vernon-Purvis and found it an “amazing” book that she wanted to explore further.

“It’s given an impetus to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays,” she said. “Hamnet has a twin sister, Judith, and I’m a twin as well, so I found it very moving and very pertinent.

“I’d already written a lecture on grief and time in Hamlet and Hamnet before the competition, so I knew a lot of what I wanted to say. It was about reframing those ideas specifically for the idea of borrowing the language of another person.

“In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable, so Shakespeare’s son was essentially named Hamlet. O’Farrell essentially theorises that the play Hamlet was written as Shakespeare’s response to the death of his son. She thinks in the sense that Hamlet is searching for the ghost of his dead father, so Shakespeare essentially traded places and almost found the ghost of his son in this fictional character that he created.

“I thought about O’Farrell’s style and how specific elements of Shakespeare’s language were reframed within her novel, but also how essentially taking an idea can make someone else’s words your own.”

Lily was thrilled to discover she had been highly commended in the competition, especially as she hopes to gain a place reading English literature at Trinity College.

She said: “I felt like it was quite a personal thing that I wanted to say. There’s a widely respected scholarly tradition that suggests Hamlet was taken by Shakespeare from the Spanish Tragedy and a play called Amleth, which were contemporary to him because a lot of the plot ideas are similar.

“Hamnet is usually mentioned in a sentence or thrown away completely, but O’Farrell wanted to write the novel to give him a voice and she did that amazingly. There’s a sense it could be taken academically as an amazing piece of writing, but not necessarily as fact.

“I wanted to get across that in Hamlet there are striking resemblances to this novel that O’Farrell potentially hadn’t tried to replicate, but were there because of the boy himself. It became something I wanted to justify.”

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