Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: a brilliantly observed historical novel

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O’Farrell’s remarkable novel about Shakespeare’s son is both painful and satisfying.

We know the bare facts. At the age of 18, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman in her mid-twenties from a family of affluent yeoman farmers. When they wed, she was pregnant. Six months later, she gave birth to their daughter Susanna. Less than two years after this, she gave birth to twins, a boy and girl, named Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet Shakespeare died, of causes unrecorded, aged 11 and a half. His sisters lived on into old age.

Hamlet and Hamnet. It has always seemed extraordinary that Shakespeare’s most famous protagonist almost shares a name with his dead son. The Shakespeare twins were named after their parents’ close friends and neighbours, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. Meanwhile, the source story for Shakespeare’s tragedy, François de Belleforest’s 16th-century version of a Norse legend, has a protagonist called “Hamblet”. Yet it seems hard to believe that the coincidence of names was not in Shakespeare’s mind when he was writing his tragedy, only three years or so after the death of his son. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel is written with the conviction that it was entirely in his mind.

The foreknowledge of Hamnet’s early death weighs on the reader of this novel; the novelist makes it do so. Its opening sequence has Hamnet running through Stratford to find a physician. His twin is sick; we know that she has the plague. We also know that she will live and he will die. The book moves back and forth between this time and the Shakespeares’ courtship and early years of marriage. The teenage son of a brutish Stratford glover has become a Latin tutor. On one of his visits to teach the children of an upwardly mobile local family, he encounters their eldest daughter, a wild young woman first seen with a falcon on her fist. Anne has been renamed Agnes, on the authority, an Author’s Note tells us, of her father Richard Hathaway, who so named her in his will. The unexpected name suits O’Farrell, who wants to make her a stranger character than any existing legend. Agnes is imagined here as some kind of wise woman, who sells potions and herbal remedies to the locals, brings animals into the house and gives birth in the forest that begins at the edge of her brother’s fields. The narrative dodges deftly from one character’s point of view to another’s, but it is Shakespeare’s wife who dominates.

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Her husband is never named. Until the very end of the book, the playwright’s creativity is an off-stage mystery. He travels to London to expand his father’s glove business and ends up in a theatre company. For much of the book, he is absent, up to making money and who knows what else. By the end, the mother and daughters are in their enormous new house, bought with the huge profits her husband has made from his theatre company, the envy of their tattling Stratford neighbours. All are mystified …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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