Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

(New York: Knopf, 2020)

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s.” Thus remarks the narrator in the opening pages of Irish author Maggie O’Farrell’s breathtaking new novel Hamnet, whose title belies its subject. Although it is ostensibly a story about William Shakespeare’s eponymous son, the central protagonist is in fact the boy’s mother. The tale is focalized through Agnes Shakespeare, a historical personage more readily known to us as Anne Hathaway, or simply, “Shakespeare’s wife”. We think we know the Bard quite well, owing to the record of his prodigious body of work and its iconic cultural influence. However, scant biographical details exist about the man, and even fewer exist about his wife and their lost son. In a boldly subversive move, O’Farrell declines to name Shakespeare at all in her book; instead, he is “lodger, brother, husband, father and, here, player.” Rather than presenting us with the umpteenth Shakespearean biography, she offers us “something other” – a phrase which appears twice in the text to describe the enigmatic maternal figure. In her latest novel, O’Farrell seeks to retrieve the “absent mother” Agnes Shakespeare from the obfuscating sexism of historiography.

While visiting the archives, O’Farrell discovered that the woman we know as Anne Hathaway was called Agnes in her father’s will. In the early modern period, the name would have been pronounced similarly to the French Agnès, “said differently from how it might be written on a page, with that near-hidden, secret g.” In a wonderfully playful scene in the novel, Shakespeare mishears her name as “Anne” when they first meet. The slipperiness of her name in the book registers the mysterious nature of her identity. Prior to their fateful encounter, the eighteen-year-old Shakespeare has already “heard many…fanciful tales” about this enchanting woman eight years his senior:

She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad…collecting plants to make dubious potions. It is wise not to cross her for people say she learnt her crafts from an old crone…She is said to be too wild for any man. Her mother, God rest her soul, had been a gypsy or a sorceress or a forest sprite.

O’Farrell reimagines Agnes as a powerful woman with exceptional gifts, and this visionary healer captivates the local glover’s wayward son, who will one day become the world’s greatest dramatist. In a recent interview, O’Farrell stated that the majority of existing material disparages Anne Hathaway as “a cradle-snatching strumpet peasant” who “tricked Shakespeare into marrying her by getting pregnant,” despite the lack of proof to support such a theory. Accordingly, she depicts a passionate love affair, which is nearly torn asunder by the death of their beloved boy due to bubonic plague. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, which he wrote four years after the death of his son, O’Farrell speculates on this underexplored aspect of his life. The epigraph to the novel cites Steven Greenblatt, who notes that “Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records” from the late sixteenth century. In the author’s note she emphasizes, “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died,” nor is the Black Death even “mentioned once by Shakespeare” in “any” of his writings. Therefore naming, or the refusal to name, something or someone is a significant theme in the book. When Hamnet hears a neighbor mention the plague, he thinks, “That – he will not name it, he will not allow the word to form, even inside his head – hasn’t been known in this town for years.”

Not long ago, the word “plague” would have sounded decidedly old-fashioned to us, a relic from another era. And yet here we are, “in this distracted globe,” facing a worldwide pandemic, and the concept has re-entered contemporary life. In many ways, “the time is out of joint,” and it is in this uncanny moment that Hamnet has appeared. The novel is an astonishingly intimate portrayal of a family living in the shadow of pestilence during a strange, stifling summer – a scenario that is eerily relevant. In her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am (2017), O’Farrell reflects on death, “I know all too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.” Correspondingly, in Hamnet she writes of Agnes’s dying patients, “How frail, to Agnes, is the veil between their world and hers. For her, the worlds are indistinct from each other, rubbing up against each other, allowing passage between them.” The structure of the novel follows suit, and the result is deeply atmospheric prose that transports the reader to another world, which is at once Elizabethan England and a dreamlike space where anything can happen. The timeline of the text shifts back and forth between 1596, the year Hamnet dies aged eleven, and the 1580s, tracing the courtship and marriage of Agnes and William, and family life with their three children. It is an exquisitely rendered meditation on motherhood in all its love, joy, and grief, and the miraculous power of art to heal a wounded heart.

Maggie O’Farrell. Photograph by Pako Mera

An accomplished writer, O’Farrell has published eight novels, a bestselling memoir, and several short stories. Her first novel After You’d Gone (2000) was praised by Edna O’Brien as “beautifully written,” and it won the Betty Trask Award. O’Farrell went on to win the Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us (2005), and the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine (2010). She was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award another two times, for Instructions for a Heatwave in 2014 and This Must Be the Place in 2017. She is currently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction – surprisingly for the first time – for her latest book. Twenty years after publishing her contemporary fiction debut, O’Farrell makes a dramatic shift to historical fiction in Hamnet, and it is her finest work yet. She is a spellbinding word-weaver, conjuring up a vivid historical milieu that is at once familiar and surreal in its immediacy. Her extensive research is everywhere evident, but at no point does it intrude upon the realm of the text. Hamnet is a book about death as well as beginnings, and O’Farrell takes a recognizable storyline and makes it startlingly new. Just as Hamlet signaled a pivotal development in Shakespeare’s writing, so too does this novel mark a career-defining moment for O’Farrell. The death of William Shakespeare’s only son had a generative effect on the playwright, who went on to produce what is widely believed to be his masterwork, which he named after his lost child. Likewise, this historical event has also engendered Maggie O’Farrell’s magnum opus. Hamnet is a profoundly affecting study of Agnes Shakespeare: a loving wife, a grieving mother, and a woman who has been maligned by history. It is an utterly bewitching book suffused with incandescent beauty and intense emotion, and ghosted by extraordinary dream-images that will haunt your imagination long after you have finished reading it.



Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland. She tweets @drdawnmiranda.