Shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is about an eleven-year-old boy that loves his sister. It’s about the boy’s mother, who can tell who people are and what they will become, just by holding their hand. It’s about the boy’s father, William Shakespeare, who has gone to London when he should be at home.
It’s also about a flea, a sickness and a worldwide pandemic.
Maggie O’Farrell had no way of knowing what was going to happen in the year Hamnet was published and yet disease and paranoia echo across every page. Some books were destroyed by this pandemic, lost through lack of publicity and events, readers with minds more concerned with fact than fiction. Other books were made. Of course, Maggie O’Farrell needs no help getting noticed – her previous work contains bestsellers and prize-winners, well-reviewed and well-liked. And yet, the context of the coronavirus pandemic lifts Hamnet up and drops it centre-stage. It captures the urgency and panic of life right now, in spite of the fact it takes place in 1596, almost five-hundred years ago.
‘I first discovered Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who had died at the age of eleven, when I was studying for my Scottish Highers, aged sixteen,’ says O’Farrell in a video filmed from lockdown for Forbidden Planet. ‘Even though I was only a teenager and some way off being a parent myself, the symmetry of these names [Hamnet and Hamlet, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy] struck me. For a man who is so mysterious to us – so little is known about him, his actual life – to call a play and probably his most tragic antihero after his dead son, to me seemed to speak volumes. It seems like an enormous sign somehow. I’m not quite sure what it is, but then there’s so much about Shakespeare that is uncertain.’
The character of William Shakespeare casts a long shadow over the book. He’s never explicitly named by O’Farrell and he flits from page to page, escaping serious scrutiny. This is a stage he’s never on for long. Near the beginning, on a sunny morning in 1596, we get a glimpse of him ‘striding through Bishopgate towards the river, where he aims to buy one of the flat, unleavened griddle cakes that sell on stalls there.’ O’Farrell paints this moving portrait with adoring strokes – ‘People say of him that he has gold stored in bags under the boards of his lodging: he has heard this and smiled.’ But we only get this scene with Shakespeare in London because we need to know he’s the father of the sick little girl sick in Stratford. We need to know he’s two days’ ride away.
The drama here is the family tree, branching out and around Shakespeare; how it came to grow, survive and the strangling vines of sickness winding up around the trunk. With Shakespeare himself regulated to a supporting role, it’s his wife, Agnes, who bears the weight of the tragic hero. Her tragic flaw is never explicitly stated but, early, as Hamnet runs from cookhouse to brewhouse to washhouse, trying to find an adult that will magically restore health to his sick sister, O’Farrell draws us to one side. In a separate section of text, almost like an aside in a play, she tells us all lives have ‘an epicentre from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry… It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.’
Most people know Shakespeare’s wife as Anne Hathaway, the recipient of the second-best bed in his will. But, during her research, Maggie O’Farrell discovered that Shakespeare’s wife’s own father referred to her in his will as Agnes.
‘I thought if anyone’s going to know her name, it’s going to be her dad,’ O’Farrell tells Damian Barr in a video recorded at his Literary Salon, just before lockdown. ‘Why are we all calling her Anne Hathaway when we should all be calling her Agnes Shakespeare, which I think is probably her name?’
Agnes is an outsider, an almost Cinderella-like figure, before she meets and marries her husband. O’Farrell is interested in Agnes’ mother, rumoured to be ‘a gypsy or a sorceress or a forest sprite.’ But then, after her mother’s death and father’s re-marriage, Agnes is shunned and scorned, loathed by her new stepmother. There’s a wildness about her, an ability to see people for what they really are and what they will become, that captivates the young Latin tutor hired to educate the young men of the household.
This is the way the novel works. There’s no rolling plot here. We know what happens, who lives and who dies, what the tutor becomes. But that’s not the point. The point is the epicentre, ‘from which everything flows, to which everything returns.’ The glimpses of life we get before and after Hamnet’s death, of Agnes’ childhood, of Shakespeare onstage, the lives of Hamnet’s sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, are all ties together by the death of the boy, of this echoing tragedy lying at his mother’s ‘very core for the rest of her life’. It’s an effective technique, allows O’Farrell to stitch rich scenes of anguish to absences, flicking forwards and backwards in time to make pairings and draw comparisons. Readers already interested in Shakespeare, familiar with the threadbare patchwork scholars have crafted of his life events, will find O’Farrell’s novel refreshing, an opportunity to re-examine with the looming legend of the central figure pushed to one side. For those that want cold, hard facts – a straightforward biography of Hamnet Shakespeare – O’Farrell’s novel, with its light and shade, its unravelling timeline, may linger a little too long in the shadows and depend too much on the imaginative power of its readers. Those that like a ponder, however, those that think about the living, breathing bodies of geniuses and the bodies around them, will be enthralled by Hamnet, and may need some time to get over its most moving passages.
But, on the subject of epicentres, it’s impossible to ignore the current running through the novel, the current dictating the direction of our lives right now, whether you know anything about Shakespeare or not. For any reader, there’s a description that falls in the middle of the book that will make you stop, blink, take note. A cabin boy in the Mediterranean goes ashore to find food, pets a monkey, carries three fleas from the monkey back to the ship, sets sail. Three days later, past Damascus and heading for Aleppo, the midshipman is unwell. By the time they reach Aleppo, he’s dead.
O’Farrell charts the progression of the disease, from the ports of the Mediterranean to a cart heading to Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s a journey we’ve spent the last six months thinking about, watching on animated slides in press conferences, seen dissected in documentaries. It’s why we wipe down our shopping, can’t see some friends or members of our own family. And as we wipe, adjust masks, we see ourselves as the source, capable to making the one terrible mistake that sets the stage for tragedy.
O’Farrell’s been trying to write this book for thirty years. Intimidated by the scale of the story she wanted to tell, by Shakespeare, by the 16th century, she managed to write two novels (Instructions for a Heatwave, This Must Be the Place) and one memoir (I Am, I Am, I Am) instead of writing Hamnet. She wrote 15,000 words and stopped. Went to Stratford. Started again. It’s taken thirty years to write but the timing seems right. It knew what it was, what it would become, what it would mean, and it was waiting.
About the Reviewer
Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a novel. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.