THE country is in the grip of plague. Mothers watch anxiously for symptoms of illness. Theatres are shut, and public gatherings are banned. Everyone must stay at home until the pestilence has passed.
This is the 16th rather than the 21st century, although Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 book looks spookily prescient. In Hamnet, she reimagines the life and death of Shakespeare’s son, presumed to be a victim of the plague. The author mentions in her foreword that, since she discovered, as a schoolgirl, that Shakespeare lost his 11-year-old son four years before writing Hamlet (the two names were interchangeable at the time), she had wanted to write the story.
The novel takes what slim evidence there is, and creates a narrative about the Shakespeare family. William is never named; he is variously “the Latin tutor”, “her husband”, “the boy’s father”. His absence is a running theme of the story: he is in London, pursuing his mysterious vocation as a playwright and actor, far beyond the understanding of the townspeople of Stratford-upon-Avon, who are incredulous to discover that the glover’s son has made something of himself to the point of buying substantial property back in Warwickshire to support his family.
Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway (known here as Agnes, the name given to her in her father’s will) had three children: Susanna, and the twins Hamnet and Judith. It is Judith who falls sick at first, Judith whose health was fragile. The story opens as her twin runs for help. We witness his increasing agitation as he fails to find his mother or aunt or grandmother. Once Agnes is found, so intent is her concern for Judith that she overlooks her son’s decline. (“It has come. The moment she feared most, the event she has turned this way and that, rehearsed and re-rehearsed in her mind, during the dark of sleepless nights, at moments of idleness, when she is alone. The pestilence has reached her house.”)
Then the horror: by way of a well-worn and yet tragic twin-swapping trope, the author has Hamnet and Judith swapping places, so that death unexpectedly passes one by at the cost of the other’s life.
O’Farrell interleaves the story of Hamnet’s death with the courtship of his parents. Agnes is older than her husband by eight years: a country girl, a mystical figure who keeps bees, conjures medicines from herbs, and can foresee the future. Yet she is practical compared with her dreamer of a husband. It is Agnes who experiences his depression as a “cloud of grey and rot coming off her husband”, and sees that he needs to be set free to pursue a new life in London, to the bewilderment of his family and neighbours. It is she who nurses the children, apparently dragging Judith back to life by sheer force of will while her son sickens beside her.
© Keith Morris/AlamyThe Northern Irish author Maggie O’Farrell, a multi-award winning novelist
O’Farrell’s thesis is that Shakespeare must surely have been influenced by the tragic loss of his son, and the book ends with Agnes’s improbable trip to London to see her husband’s play. The author has said that she couldn’t have written the book had she not been a mother herself, but she had to wait until her own son had passed the age of 11 before it felt safe to do so. She is familiar with the fear of loss in her own family, having had several brushes with death, outlined in her 2017 memoir I Am I Am I Am; and one of her daughters suffers from a potentially life-threating condition.
O’Farrell’s depiction of Agnes’s grief is agonising and visceral. She is paralysed by it: refusing to move from her dead son’s bedside, preventing all arrangements for his burial in defiance of the decree that orders the immediate burial of the victims of plague. At dawn, “the father” finally arrives, summoned home from Kent — four days’ ride away — by news that his daughter is seriously ill. His initial relief at seeing Judith well turns to shock and horror. Then come the funeral, Hamnet’s burial, and the appalling realisation of what has occurred, and what it means for his parents, his twin, and the wider family. “How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?”
Not everyone will appreciate O’Farrell’s lyrical style; sentences can sometimes feel overloaded. For example, the forest is “a restless, verdant, inconstant sight: the wind caresses, ruffles, disturbs the mass of leaves; each tree answers to the weather’s ministrations at a slightly different tempo from its neighbour, bending and shuddering and tossing its branches, as if trying to get away from the air, from the very soil that nourishes it.”
But, for my money, this is a powerful book by a brilliant author at the peak of her powers. The world that she evokes is simultaneously strange and modern: unfamiliar for the absence of modern medicine and instant communication; familiar because love and loss remain the same. If there is anything surprising about her winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction for Hamnet, it is only that she hasn’t won it before.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-4722-2382-1.
HAMNET — SOME QUESTIONS
- Many things are left unsaid, or suppressed, in Agnes’s family life. How does this affect her?
- “Then there is silence, stillness.” How is death presented in the novel?
- In what ways does paganism exist alongside Christianity in O’Farrell’s Elizabethan England? Does this affect societal views about love, marriage, and death?
- “They beg her to stop.” Why are her family concerned about Agnes’s premonitions?
- “It is hard to know what to do with his clothes.” How does grief manifest itself for Agnes? What things does she find most difficult?
- “We may never stop looking for him. I don’t think I would want to.” What does Agnes mean by this?
- O’Farrell purposely avoided Elizabethan dialogue in the novel. What effect did this have, for you?
- “Susannah’s father”, “her husband”, “the Latin tutor”: what is the effect of avoiding William Shakespeare’s name?
- What different models of motherhood are presented in the novel?
- How does the move to the grand new house affect Agnes and her family’s standing in Stratford
In our next reading-groups page on 5 November, we will print extra information about our next book, Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay. It is published by Handheld Press at £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-912766-50-5.
A collection of 80 autobiographical essays anthologised in 1935, Personal Pleasures gives a humorous insight into Rose Macaulay’s life and enjoyments. The focus, as the title suggests, is on pleasures: for Macaulay, this includes witty takes on “Taking Umbrage”, “Christmas morning”, “Elephants in Bloomsbury”, “Not going to Parties” and “Bed” (both “Getting into it” and, separately, “Not getting out of it”). Despite its light touch, however, the collection also touches on the “reverse side” of such pleasures, or, in Macaulay’s words, “the flaws in their perfections”, which “remind us of their mortality and our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect”.
Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) was born in Rugby, and moved to Verazze, Italy, with her family at the age of six. She studied history at Oxford before moving to London, where she became well known in literary circles, part of a scene including E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West, and W. H. Auden. A practising Anglican in her youth, Macaulay parted ways with the Church for nearly 30 years, before returning in her late sixties. As a poet, novelist, journalist, and critic, Macaulay published 39 books, including 23 novels. Her best-known novel, The Towers of Trebizond, was the last to be published, in 1956.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
December: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
January: A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell