Not unusually, I’m late to this book that was all the talk in 2020 – and, I may not have read it at all if it hadn’t been for my reading group. I’m talking, as you will have guessed from the post title, of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.
As most of you will know, Hamnet’s plot draws from the life of Shakespeare (never named in the novel) and Anne Hathaway, and the death of their son Hamnet at the age of 11. There was an older sister, Susanna, and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. O’Farrell explains her interest in her Author’s Note:
Lastly, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or ‘pestilence’, as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare, in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.
Because this book has been well-covered already online, I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this post, and focus on a couple of questions.
“She herself might tell a different story”
With all books, but particularly with historical fiction, one of my questions is, why did the author choose to write their story. O’Farrell partly answers it in her Author’s note. However, there is also, surely, a feminist reading, because, although the novel is titled Hamnet, it is primarily about his mother Agnes (as Anne is named in Shakespeare’s will). Early in the novel, O’Farrell writes “This is the story, the myth of Agnes’s childhood. She herself might tell a different story”.
The thing is, we don’t know a lot about Agnes Hathaway which makes her ripe for historical fiction. What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant. It means that importance hasn’t been placed on them. Whoever Agnes really was, O’Farrell has created a wonderful, eccentric character, who is perceptive, warm, independently-minded, a little flawed but engaged in the life of her family and community. She is fun to read about.
Besides telling a story about her, though, O’Farrell also presents, through her, a story about grief, and this, for me, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Agnes’ thoughts about burying her son, her astonishment that people can complain about their children, her utter discombobulation were so real:
Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her …
This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. … Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.
So real …
Warning: Spoiler of sorts
Given the novel is titled for Hamnet, rather than for its main protagonist, Agnes, it’s worth considering why, and this leads us to the play Hamlet. The novel ends with Agnes attending a performance of her husband’s play, which confirms the significance of this play to the novel. The epigraph to the novel’s second part is a quote from Hamlet (V:ii): “Thou livest;/ . . . draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story”. But, Hamlet could scarcely be seen to be Hamnet’s story, though I did have a little laugh at the point in the novel where Hamnet chooses to die:
They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.
Eleven-year-old Hamnet seems, here, to be far more decisive than his namesake who is known for his prevarication. This, however, is not what we are expected to take away from the novel I’m sure!
So, what else? Well, there’s the grief theme, which Hamlet can be seen to “resolve” in the novel. Agnes, devastated after her son’s death, can’t understand her husband returning to work – and writing comedies:
His company are having a great success with a new comedy. They took it to the Palace and the word was that the Queen was much diverted by it.
There is a silence. Judith looks from her mother, to her sister, to the letter.
A comedy? her mother asks.
She is even more devastated though to learn that her husband has gone on to write a play using their son’s name – Hamnet and Hamlet being interchangeable – so she goes to London to confront him. What happens is something else. Initially, she feels eviscerated:
How could he thieve this name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained?
But then, as she sees the ghost father and living son, she starts to see something else:
He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.
My reading group discussed the question of the play a little, though we didn’t come to any particular conclusion, which I rather like. However, we did talk about how Shakespeare wrote his darkest, strongest plays, including the four great tragedies, after Hamnet’s death, which suggests that his son’s death had a big impact on him. A member also raised the play’s existential nature, seeing it exploring the fragility of life – “to be or not to be” – and how you go on in the face of bleakness.
Now, I could go on and talk about the style (language, use of present tense, symbolism), the decision not to name Shakespeare, and the dual storyline structure, as I normally would, but I’m sure they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so I’m leaving it this time. There were aspects of the novel that I question, but the truth is that I fell for Agnes and her story.
So, I’m going to leave you with two quotes, one from the husband, one from the wife.
It is so tenuous, so fragile, the life of the playhouses. He often thinks that, more than anything, it is like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat.
Gardens don’t stand still: they are always in flux.
These relate to their spheres of activity, but they also say something about life, don’t you think?
London: Tinder Press, 2020