by Maggie O’Farrell

‘A boy is coming down a flight of stairs. The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly….’

After The Tale of Genji, Hamnet is a nice, easy read. Based on the life, and death, of the only son of William Shakespeare, it is a fictionalised account of the bard’s marriage, and his relationship with his family. An easy read it may be, but it isn’t a light-hearted one and instead captures all the drama of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Although the narrative jumps from character to character, most of it comes to us through the eyes and thoughts of his wife Agnes – Maggie O’Farrell has chosen to call her that, rather than Anne, a decision she explains in an author note. In 1596, the Black Death has reached Stratford, and one of its first victims is Judith, the Shakespeares’ younger daughter and twin sister of their only son, Hamnet – the adoption of Hamnet, rather than Hamlet, is also explained in the author’s note.

For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and these people need to meet.’

Agnes is an outsider, who makes a small living as a herbalist and healer while her husband works in London. Her own family and her neighbours think her strange. She is feared by some because of her ability to predict the course of another’s life, but I get no sense in the story that she is under any sort of threat for her science. Agnes treats her daughter when she becomes sick, failing to notice that Hamnet has been infected too. And it is Hamnet, though the first-born and apparently the stronger, who dies. Judith recovers.

The death has a devastating effect on the immediate family. None can believe the boy is dead. The husband and father – Shakespeare is never named in the story- arrives home from London too late. He retreats into his work at the Playhouse. Agnes blames herself for giving all her attention to Judith and for not noticing Hamnet was sickening. Judith, left-handed and, because of it, unable to learn to write, now feels herself to be only half a person, the reflection in a mirror of her missing twin.

‘Agnes lowers herself to the ground. It is dry, in the lee of the uprooted tree, with a carpet of pine needles. She feels another pain coming, driving towards her, getting closer, like thunder over a landscape.’

Hamnet comes in two parts. The first, in distinct but unnumbered chapters, recounts the meeting, courtship and marriage of Agnes and her husband, and the birth of their first child, Susanna. With this birth, we get the sense of the pagan nature of Agnes’s heritage. Following that is the more conventional but more traumatic birth of the twins, the boy strong and healthy, the girl weak and sickly. The husband goes to London promising to buy a house for the family there. However, he rarely comes home, and the section ends with his tragic return to find his boy already dead.

Part Two is narrated almost entirely from Agnes’s point of view and is without chapters. She has lost some of her sixth sense and continually searches for signs in people, places, and in nature that Hamnet has not gone completely from the world. When she eventually reaches London, it is in response to a handbill advertising her husband’s play, one he has written to commemorate the name of their dead child. The tone is atmospheric, the ending upbeat.

‘She stretches out a hand, as if to acknowledge them, as if to feel the air between the three of them, as if wishing to pierce the boundary between audience and players, between real life and play.’

As I have not read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other works, I am not familiar with her style. Her approach to the main theme here may be unusual but it was enough to win her the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, in addition to ‘Book of the Year’ from a number of other international institutions. It worked for me both as a historical novel and as a piece of (very) creative non-fiction. Hamnet is a clever, imaginative and moving story of a family about whom surprisingly little is known. We know Shakespeare from his plays and Anne/Agnes Hathaway from her “cottage”. Maggie O’Farrell invents the rest. She does it well, and she could, just possibly, be right.

Visits to Stratford will never be the same again!


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