Hamnet: Historical novel connects death of a son with the birth of Hamlet
Book review: Maggie O’Farrell recreates Shakespeare’s family and that of Elizabethan England
Author Maggie O’Farrell. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Imagine publishing a novel depicting a famous person in 16th-century England in the same month as The Mirror and the Light. Folly, or good sense to get a leg-up from the interest in the period? After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Not that there is much danger of Hamnet being overlooked. Maggie O’Farrell has been prominent since her debut After You’d Gone, 20 years ago, and her books have won acclaim from then up to her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am. Until now her novels have varied between contemporary settings and period pieces from the mid-20th century: now she has gone full historical with “a novel I’ve wanted to write for over 30 years”.
Hamnet is named after William Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11 in 1596; a few years later, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. According to Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were entirely interchangeable at the time, and O’Farrell is interested in determining the connection.
She recreates Shakespeare’s – let’s say Will’s – family amid the sights, sounds and especially smells of Elizabethan England. There’s his father John, a glove maker, who disapproves of his errant son wasting his life as a language tutor. There are his daughter Susanna and twins Judith and Hamnet. And his wife, known to us as Anne Hathaway but referred to in the novel as Agnes (which is what her father called her in his will).
Agnes, not Hamnet, is the real centre of the novel. She is an independent spirit, “like no one you ever met”. She is a falconer and a herbalist, and is believed by some to have unnatural powers, “this creature, this woman, this elf, this sorceress, this forest sprite”.
“When she is no more than seven or eight, a visitor lets Agnes hold her hand and Agnes says, you will meet your death within the month, and doesn’t it come true, just like that, the visitor being struck down with an ague the very next week?”
The narrative is split in two parts: before Hamnet’s death, and after. The first part, which occupies two-thirds of the book, alternates between Will and Agnes’s earlier years – youth, courtship, pregnancy, shotgun wedding – and the “present day” of the book, late-16th century England.
And aside from any other universal relevance Hamnet may have, its portrayal of a plague-stricken land seems timely just about now. “The playhouses are all shut, and nobody is allowed to gather in public,” we learn. (And one social media meme doing the rounds at time of writing tells us that when Shakespeare was quarantined for plague, he wrote King Lear. Well, nobody likes a show-off. I watched The Good Place.)
The thread of the present day story is that Judith is dying of bubonic plague, with Agnes tending her, Hamnet worrying about his twin sister, and Will nowhere to be seen, unsatisfied with his life, seeking what psychologists would call self-actualisation as a playwright. Indeed, Shakespeare is less a presence in the book than an absence, not even named, presumably to foreground his humanity and sideline his fame.
But Will was Shakespeare, after all, and in this sense Hamnet resembles George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: it gives us a defining moment in a life that may have made the subject into a great man. If Lincoln’s bereavement gave him the strength to win the war, then Hamnet’s death drove Shakespeare to write his greatest play.
Of course the fear that Judith will die is a trick on O’Farrell’s part, and she pulls through when Hamnet literally takes her place in the sickbed. Until this point, the story goes rather slowly, weighed down in part by O’Farrell’s love of the rhetorical rule of three. She never describes something once if she can do it multiple times.
Leaves are “restless, verdant, inconstant”. Wind “caresses, ruffles, disturbs” them. The tree they are on is “bending and shuddering and tossing” its branches – and these are all in the space of five lines. Once noticed, it becomes unignorable, and the problem with piling on the descriptions is that it doesn’t deepen the reader’s understanding, it dilutes it.
But when Hamnet dies, the story takes on a new steel, and there is plenty of power in Agnes mourning Hamnet’s body, in the arguments it causes between Agnes and Will (who wants to go to London to pursue “a good opportunity”), in Agnes’s loss of faith in her own abilities and her numb grief, which vividly brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain . . .”
And the death affects everyone in the family: what is the name for a twin, asks Judith, who isn’t a twin any more? Most of all, it gives a sense of purpose not just to Shakespeare but to the novel as well. And it is fitting, perhaps, that Hamnet has to die to bring his own story to life.