“He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.”
Hamlet, Act IV, scene 5
A very young boy is frantically seeking help for his ill sister. Judith is his twin, and her lifeblood seems to course through his veins. Her pain is his.
Another young man is pondering his future. He wistfully gazes out the window, anxious to have his thoughts fly away from his present predicament—a brutish father, the smell of leather from the father’s glove-making workshop, and the tedium of his Latin tutoring days. He does not want his life to fall into the repetitive rhythm of verb conjugations.
Both characters inhabit the same house on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, but in different time frames from 1580 to 1596. The reader will learn that the younger boy is the son of the Latin tutor.
“Hamnet,” written by Maggie O’Farrell, is a historical novel.
Often referred to as the “Bard of Avon,” William Shakespeare was an English playwright, poet, and actor regarded by many as the greatest writer in the English language.
History tells us that William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.
This is not a spoiler. We also know that Hamnet dies at age 11. Four years after his death, Shakespeare writes a play called Hamlet.
Hamnet and Hamlet were names that were used entirely interchangeably in Stratford records in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Little is known of Shakespeare’s personal life, a notion that long intrigued O’Farrell, prompting her to write this bold vision.
She has taken these scant bits of history and woven them into a speculative tapestry of immense beauty. Her lyrical use of language and her impressive prose is sumptuously rich and elaborate.
The plot unfolds, not in a linear structure, but in parallel narratives linked by the common characters, events, and themes. Amidst all of this, the main protagonist of the novel, Agnes, takes root. O’Farrell elects to call Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, not Anne, as she found in historical records that her father Richard Hathaway had called her by Agnes in his will.
She is the force of this novel, this woman of the woods. She is some eight years older than the Latin tutor and captivates his imagination and his heart. She is his unlikely partner, this woman with flowing hair, a kestrel on her sleeve, mud on her hemline from forest wanderings and herb harvesting.
Her husband is enthralled.
“She can look at a person and see right into their very soul. There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are or ought to be.”
Agnes is pregnant with his child when they hastily marry. Her sister-in-law Eliza presents her with a crown crafted of various flowers and ferns.
O’Farrell’s use of descriptive language captures Agnes’s pain in childbirth, her connection to the natural world, her delight with her children, her caring as she administers curing potions to her neighbors, her love for her brother Bartholomew, and her angst at her husband’s long absences in London where he flourishes as a playwright.
Perhaps to enhance Agnes’s predominance, to give her a greater role in this novel than she has had in history, O’Farrell does not name Shakespeare as such. He is father, brother, husband, son, or playwright—not diminished or dismissed but never named.
Agnes is a seer of souls. By a touch she knows your thoughts, your intentions. It is a gift and a curse. It also doesn’t always calm her anxieties. Sometimes it plays tricks on her.
Just as she didn’t expect twins with the birth of Hamnet and Judith, she doesn’t get a premonition that her son, the strong one of the two, would perish of the bubonic plague.
While the actual death of Shakespeare’s son is not conclusively known, O’Farrell attributes it to the Black Death or pestilence.
Agnes’s grief consumes her. It will undoubtedly consume the reader who has followed Hamnet’s short but curiously creative and robust life. O’Farrell’s ability to transport us through this family’s pain, to portray these agonies in such a masterful and evocative way, is brilliant and so engaging as a storyteller.
The effect of Hamnet’s passing for Agnes, for his siblings, their family, and their absent father is stunningly written. It grabs at your guts and doesn’t let you go.
Hamnet’s lone boots. His shock of blond hair, which his mother lovingly caresses even in his death. His twin’s feeling of his presence.
Well-paced and gripping, the last narratives seem to take us to a tragic and tumultuous end. No doubt the marriage will shatter, the misunderstandings will stand not corrected or forgiven, this couple’s magnetism will not be enough to sustain them through this grief.
Do art and literature have the power to transform? What light can transcend the darkness of their misfortune? Will there be redemption?
O’Farrell’s remarkable and radiant ending is an exceptional and spectacular volte-face.
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and a national bestseller, O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” catapults the reader into another time and place, with characters that yank at our heartstrings encased in lilting language.
Inspiring and empowering, the eccentric and graceful Agnes is the pivotal character of “Hamnet,” a novel that swirls about her spirit and leaves us breathless and wanting for more.
By Maggie O’Farrell
Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, paperback, 2021