‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell – A Primal Fiction about the Wife and Kids of William Shakespeare

 

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell  (2020) – 305 pages

Besides the immortal plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, we know next to nothing about himself, his family, or his circumstances. This is the ideal situation for a writer with a rich imagination to write a fiction of his family life. It allows a vivid mind to freely roam without factual constraints.

So few records regarding Shakespeare’s family exist that I probably wouldn’t even classify ‘Hamnet’ as historical fiction.

We know he married Anne Hathaway (Her actual name was probably Agnes), had three children, and that his son Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11. We also know that he wrote and staged the play Hamlet three years later. Hamnet and Hamlet were considered the same name at that time.

Imagine an entire book about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.

In ‘Hamnet’, William is but a lesser character while his wife Agnes and his daughters Susanna and Judith and son Hamnet take center stage.

In the Afterword, Maggie O’Farrell writes, “This novel is the result of my idle speculation.” Hooray for idle speculation. In ‘Hamnet’, the author fully inhabits the wife Agnes. You can feel it in the matter-of-fact tone of her short sentences.

She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself about where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

This is the most intense depiction of life and death in the late 16th century and how they must have been like. As well as the delights of courtship and marriage, we get an affecting portrayal of the grief of the mother, the father, and the rest of the children when young Hamnet gets sick and dies.

Agnes is a woman broken into pieces, crumbled and scattered around.”

‘Hamnet’ is about the elemental events in human lives – procreation, birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, illness, death – but not necessarily in that order. There is only a single reference in the entire novel to William’s genius:

You know what she said to me?”

The husband standing straight as a reed now, arms folded, lips pressed together, shakes his head. “What did she say?”

That you have more hidden away inside of you than anyone else she has ever met.”

William’s birthplace at Stratford on Avon

There has been much scholarly conjecture that William Shakespeare and his wife did not get along very well. First they point to the fact that she was three months pregnant when they married and he had to marry her. Then after the marriage, William spent most of his time in London writing and producing his plays, and only occasionally visited home. Then finally in his will written shortly before his death, he made only one bequest to his wife, “his second-best bed with the furniture”.

There is none of that in ‘Hamnet’. In the novel they are both totally enamored of each other.

Her husband holds her close as she clasps him with both arms, despite everything, just as she did that night, his body fitted to hers.”

Whether the conclusion contains a spark of historical truth or not, it is nothing less than grand. If you are not moved by this ending, you are a bigger fool than I am.

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

7 responses to this post.

  1. Hamnet is on my TBR so I have only scanned your review…
    But re the second-best bed: Germaine Greer who is a Shakespeare scholar, as I’m sure you know, takes on this issue to my great amusement, in Shakespeare’s Wife, see https://anzlitlovers.com/2014/06/18/shakespeares-wife-by-germaine-greer/

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I read your Germaine Greer post, and I expect that Maggie O’Farrell must have studied ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’ before she wrote her novel. ‘Hamnet’ depicts Shakespeare’s wife in a very positive light. However ‘Hamnet’ also depicts William in a positive light, that he really loved his wife but had to write his plays and sonnets in London. Greer according to your article has quite a negative view of William as a husband.

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  2. I really enjoyed Hamnet, I loved the character of Agnes and thought it was very clever of O’Farrell to keep William Shakespeare himself as a more minor character.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi heavenali,
      I look at it this way. If William Shakespeare had stayed home all the time with his wife and kids instead of working in London, he probably would not have written all those wonderful plays and sonnets. For one thing, he had to be involved in the staging of the plays in London.

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  3. I have previously read books by this author and not been enamoured off them. Is it prejudiced to say I think she’s overrated? Yet your review has convinced me I should give this a try. Maybe it will redeem her in my eyes?

    Liked by 1 person

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