An 1890 illustration of William Shakespeare reciting Hamlet to his family. His wife, Anne Hathaway, is sitting in the chair on the right; his son Hamnet is behind him on the left; his two daughters Susanna and Judith are on the right and left of him. Photograph: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
For a novel that imagines the lives of William and Anne Shakespeare and their only son Hamnet it’s a bit odd that the playwright is only referred to as a father, husband or groom.
It’s a puzzle as everyone else from the neighbours to the rest of the extended family are named and described in detail. It is as though the author Maggie O’Farrell was in denial that Shakespeare was a famous writer or someone of significance. In interviews she said she was reclaiming the family of Shakespeare from the shadow of its most famous member. Methinks there’s a touch of literary revisionism at play.
Following her research it became clear that Hamlet and Hamnet were apparently inter-changeable as were Anne and Agnes allowing O’Farrell to imply Shakespeare’s play of Hamlet was a result in part of his mourning for his son Hamnet (1585-1596) and for Anne or rather Agnes to be something different from the Anne Hathaway of the second best bed and the picture perfect cottage.

It also allowed her to fictionalise the rest of the family as there is very little historical detail of the lives of the Shakespeares with only the patriarch John having much in the way of records – and those relate to his downfall from civic alderman due to his illegal trading in wool. In O’Farrell’s world Shakespeare’s father John becomes a violent tyrant and his mother a kind if compliant woman in a troubled family where everyone is in fear of John’s authoritarian rages. Indeed the novel begins with poor confused Hamnet feeling the wrath of his grandfather as he seeks help as his twin Judith falls ill. Hamnet’s tragically short life is only part of the novel as the main narrative follows that of his mother.

Agnes is in tune with nature owning a hawk and able to use herbs and wild plants for therapies and is most at home in the woods and fields of Warwickshire. Her brief union with Shakespeare results in a shotgun wedding. She is much more than just the wife of William but in O’Farrell’s hands a far more interesting character. Indeed it’s her suggestion that William should move to London to pursue his acting career – prompting the thought that without her William Shakespeare would have only amounted to be a bored Latin teacher – whereas she realised London would set his creativity free.

Liza Tarbuck as Anne Hathaway in the BBC show with David Mitchell as William

The detail of life in 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon is exquisite. Hamnet is an education in the business of rural glove-making in a world centuries before the industrial revolution. And it is also the domestic arrangements with the cooking, washing and childcare that fills the novel with rich detail.
There are a number of set pieces which I found gripping and page turning, but I’ll pick two. The first is the numbing grief of Agnes as she attends the funeral of their son Hamnet. It’s not a spoiler alert as we all know Hamnet dies at the age of eleven of some form of plague. “For Agnes, the walk to the graveyard is both slow and too fast. She cannot bear the rows and rows of peering eyes, raking over them, sealing an image of her son’s shrouded body inside their lids, thieving that essence of him.” She describes the grave as being a ‘shock’ a ‘rip in the earth’ but how Hamnet would have loved the patch of earth in which he was to be buried. And of how the father carries the body through the streets of the town his face full or tears and of sweat with the family following on behind as the townsfolk line the way crossing themselves as they pass in fear they could be next.

Then there is her journey to London five years later to see the play Hamlet. A journey which she almost fails to make, as she is spooked by the large crowds. As she watches the drama she is shocked to hear the name of Hamlet spoken. “To hear that name, out of the mouths of people she’s never known and will never know, and used for an old dead king: Agnes cannot understand this. Why would her husband have done this?”
It’s a question often asked by the families and friends of a writer. But this is what writers do. They take some of their most vivid experiences and use them as material. The most vivid experiences are nearly always the most personal such as the death of child. And with just a few adjustments pour them out onto the page such as Hamnet for Hamlet.
Harry Mottram

Hamnet won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and in December 2020, Emily Temple of Literary Hub reported that the novel had made 15 lists of the best books of 2020. It was also longlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

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