Rating 4 stars
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet imagines the brief life of William Shakespeare’s only son, and the impact his death aged only 11 has on his family. The novel won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
From the opening description of a boy carefully making his way down the crooked stairs of a 16th century house, the novel is a cocoon of wordsmithery. O’Farrell’s phrasing of the day to day and the extraordinary are equally beautiful. There is a dreaminess to the writing, giving the feeling of nothing being concrete. The narrative is framed as though we are hovering above the action, having things pointed out to us.
The story is about more than Hamnet, of course, although he is the character around whom all the other players in this drama circle. The first part of the book tells the story of Hamnet’s last days, intertwined with the story of his parents’ upbringings and their relationship. The presence or absence of mothers, fathers and step-parents is key to the protagonists in O’Farrell’s tale. There is brutality and neglect. There are frustrations with the lives these parents must lead in order to care for their children. There is a balancing of love with the practicalities of life in 16th century England, where mortality is more closely present than it is today.
The second part of the book is a straight narrative of what it is to feel grief and abandonment, and how Shakespeare’s appropriation of his dead son’s name impacts on Agnes. I found this second part less engaging than the first. Despite having felt the unmooring effect of grief, albeit not for a child, I didn’t feel a deep empathy for what the characters were experiencing. I found the ending overdone.
Overall, the book is more about Hamnet’s mother, through the sense of her being outside the bounds of societal expectation, an independent spirit, and through the sense of her being a mother with no control over what is happening to her child.
The real woman is better known as Anne Hathaway, but O’Farrell chooses to name her Agnes, following what was written in her father’s will, and gives us a Latinised or Scandinavian inflected pronunciation of the name – Ann-yiz.
Her first meeting with the man she will marry pulses with the emotion of desire, and the description of their encounter in an apple store, where she keeps her kestrel and responds to Shakespeare’s lust for her with a cool sense of inevitability, leads on to a recollection of her childhood and the loss of her mother.
Shakespeare himself remains unnamed for the entirety of the novel. He is son, husband, father, Latin tutor and playwright. He is often absent and a physical rather than verbal presence when he does appear.
Reading this novel made me wish that I knew more Shakespeare. I studied Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night at school, and have seen productions of As You Like It and Hamlet, but I’m not well versed enough in the intricacies of the plots to know whether O’Farrell has woven suggestions of real life being an inspiration for Shakespeare into her tale. There are the more obvious references, treated almost casually, in Hamnet being a twin to a sister, in Shakespeare initially thinking Agnes is a boy when he first sees her in the distance, in the twins having a childhood game where they swap identities, each of which I know are plot points in Twelfth Night.
I appreciated O’Farrell’s understanding of 16th century society, its hierarchies, prejudices and superstitions. Her knowledge of the English economy of the period, with its declining reliance on the wool trade, underpins the tensions in the Shakespeare household, as headed by Hamnet’s grandfather, the glover John.
Plague, too, was a recurring threat to life and livelihood, and is accidentally a significant element of the book. O’Farrell wrote and researched it in the Times Before Covid. I wonder, had it been published even six months earlier, whether the death of Hamnet from the Plague would have registered as more than just one of those things medieval and early modern people had to deal with. As it is, certain descriptions of the impact of the Plague on day to day life take on an added relevance now.
One anachronism in the book is the use of a plague doctor costume by the local physician. The combination of long overcoat and beaked face mask didn’t emerge until the early 17th century, around 25 years after the setting of this story. It jarred with me, because it felt as though it was there for effect, in contrast to O’Farrell’s other, more careful historical observations.
I felt immersed in the story, found myself wanting to get back to it, thinking about the plot lines and the characters, and yet it isn’t a five star book for me. There is a mutedness to it that meant I was satisfied by the storytelling but not blown away by it.