A Family in Stratford
Hamnet: a Novel of the Plague
by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020, Knopf, 2021
reviewed by Seana Graham
Despite the giant shadow that Shakespeare casts across our cultural and psychological landscape, there are significant gaps in our knowledge of him. And we know even less of the family he left behind (but returned to) in Stratford-upon-Avon. While still in school, Maggie O’Farrell learned from a teacher’s chance remark that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet, a twin, who died while still a child. She was fascinated that his name was almost but not quite identical to that of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, the protagonist of the great work written only a few years after Hamnet’s death. In an epigraph, O’Farrell quotes Stephen Greenblatt as saying that in Stratford records of the period, “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” are used interchangeably.
There is no one here.
As the story opens, Hamnet is searching the family compound for someone, anyone, to help his twin sister Judith, who has fallen suddenly ill. Though Hamnet is very much alive, there is an eerie aura of death even from the outset. He is like a ghost in his own home, unable to make contact with the living. (Although he does eventually find his grandfather, which doesn’t help.) Even in subsequent chapters, he remains a kind of specter, because the adults, when they finally do return home, are at first unaware that the twins are in the house and then largely (and tragically) ignore him, out of their anxiety for his sister.
But even the narrator neglects this child a bit, because in many ways it’s not the title character that is the subject of this novel, but his mother, Anne. Or as the author prefers (and as Anne’s father referred to her in his will), Agnes—pronounced without the hard g that we are accustomed to–Ann-yis, Agn-yez.
One of the aims of this novel is to imagine other possibilities for Shakespeare’s wife than the ones we’ve become accustomed to. O’Farrell says that she became more and more angry at the consistently negative portrayal of Anne Hathaway that has come down to us through history, though even less is actually known about her than her famous husband. Drawing on skills a woman might have acquired as a farmer’s daughter in rural England, she gives Anne a knowledge of herbs and of falconry. By doing so, she exorcises the vision of Shakespeare’s wife as a drag upon his spirit, an older woman who lured him into marriage, almost preventing his theatrical destiny from taking shape.
In this novel, Agnes is the one who frees him. And thinking about it, the image of the kestrel that rides on her arm is an apt metaphor—the bird that she periodically releases into flight, but which returns to her. For Shakespeare did return to her. If his spiritual home was the London stage, then the material home he also planned for was Stratford, as he continued to send money back throughout his time away, living in modest lodgings in London despite his growing success.
It is recorded that Hamnet died at eleven, though not what the cause of death was. But as the bubonic plague was rife during this period, closing playhouses and killing about a third of all children under the age of twelve, it is not an unlikely hypothesis. In a recorded interview that I’ll link to below, Maggie O’Farrell says that she wrote the book prior to the Covid pandemic, but its release day in England of April 1st, 2020 could not have been timed better to coincide with our own current plague if it had been deliberate. A scene that has drawn much admiring attention is a separate chapter that describes how the plague could have made its way from Alexandria all the way to rural England. Perhaps we all have better appreciation of that now than we did when O’Farrell researched and wrote it.
Shakespeare is never referred to by name in this book, but by various appellations—the glover’s son, the Latin tutor, Agnes’s husband. But though it was not her aim to conjure him up, I felt that there were a couple of times when O’Farrell managed it. One surprised me, because it wasn’t set in ‘real life’ but in a dream or vision that his daughter Judith has while ill:
Then Judith is in a crowd. It is night-time, cold; the glow of lanterns punctuates the freezing dark. She thinks it is the Candlemas fair. She is in and also above a crowd, on a pair of strong shoulders. Her father. Her legs grip his neck and he holds her by each ankle; she has buried her hands in his hair. Thick dark hair he has, like Susanna’s. She uses the smallest of her fingers to tap the silver hoop in his left ear. He laughs at this—she feels the rumble of it, like thunder, pass from his body to hers—and shakes his head to make the earring rattle against her fingernail. Her mother is there, and Hamnet and Susanna, and her grandmother. Judith is the one her father has chosen to ride on his shoulders: just her.
It is that detail of the earring, the intimacy and physicality of their interchange through it that gave me a sudden sense of William Shakespeare as a man who lived and died, who was a husband and father in the ordinary way, while also being the extraordinary poet and playwright that we remember.
Yes, I thought—it must have been something like that.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology, Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.