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.
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 as to how the wealth has come about.
[see also: Shakespeare in disrupted times]
Pushing the playwright to the edges of the novel is what makes it work. Hamnet, which was awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction, was a fitting winner for the sheer quality of the writing, and also because it is a novel about wifehood and motherhood. Agnes is the rival of other wives and mothers. Early on, there is her resentful stepmother Joan; she has taken the place of her own sister, Agnes’s mother, who has died in childbirth. After marriage, Agnes lives with her in-laws John and Mary (her husband builds a kind of extension to the family home).
O’Farrell narrates in the present tense that Hilary Mantel has made irresistible for serious historical fiction, restoring, as it does, contingency and uncertainty to the past. O’Farrell’s last book, I Am, I Am, I Am, was a memoir dedicated to the precariousness of life – a catalogue of the author’s “brushes with death”. The body’s vulnerability is compellingly reimagined in this novel. How precarious is life in this world: “Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat.” Agnes believes she has a kind of foresight, dreaming that she will die with two children at the end of her bed. She is fighting her own premonitions when she finds that, for one of her children, “the door leading out of the room of the living is ajar; she can feel the chill of the draught, scent that icy air”. Like the twins in Twelfth Night, Hamnet and Judith could almost be mistaken for each other. The boy is a substitute for his sister, offering himself to Death in her place.
Infants die. Mary Shakespeare herself had three daughters who died. Were people in the past more stoical about infant mortality, when it was such a frequent fact of life? The question has often been posed by social historians and O’Farrell has a very clear answer to it: no, no, no. The core of her novel is a gruelling, brilliantly observed account of the sickness of Agnes’s children, the pre-ordained death of her son and the aching aftermath. You might think it could be set at any time, yet there is a difference between now and then that intrigues the novelist: Hamnet’s mother has no reason to expect her children to live, no right to feel appalled if any of them die. Yet incredulous and desolate she feels. O’Farrell’s research into Elizabethan funeral rituals has been turned into an agonisingly exact description of the laying out of the boy’s body, the mother noticing the soles and nails of his bare feet carry “grit from the road, soil from the garden, mud from the riverbank, where he swam not a week ago”.
The plague was an intermittent reality for Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Ironically, the disease that kills Agnes’s son is also, whenever it flares up in London, what sends her husband back to her. One bravura chapter, weirdly prescient in our pandemic days, imagines how the disease that will kill Hamnet manages to reach him in his small town in Warwickshire. In Alexandria, a cabin boy sent on shore to buy food and beer for his shipmates is captivated by a tame monkey. A flea leaps from monkey to boy, then later to one of the ship’s cats. Before long, the cats are dead and the rats onboard are infected. Some of the sailors begin to sicken. At Venice, they take on Murano glass, packed in rags, where some of the fleas take up residence. One package reaches Stratford. Renaissance globalisation.
The novel has two epigraphs: one, the fragment of a mourning lyric sung by Ophelia in Hamlet; the other, Stephen Greenblatt’s assertion that Hamnet and Hamlet were “entirely interchangeable” names in Stratford records of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Nearly the whole novel passes without mention of a single detail – not even a title – of any of Shakespeare’s plays (Agnes knows that her husband is a successful dramatist, but is apparently incurious about what he writes or performs in). So, you know where you must be headed. The novel ends with some revelation, to her and to us, of how Hamlet is connected to Hamnet. It is painful and satisfying at once, like this remarkable novel as a whole.
John Mullan’s most recent book is “The Artful Dickens” (Bloomsbury)
Tinder Press, 384pp, £20
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation