Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, 384 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1472223807
In a way that feels strangely familiar these days, towards the end of the sixteenth century theatres had been closed down to prevent the spread of infection, physicians wore masks to visit sick-houses, and edicts had been issued as to how swiftly burials must be carried out. The second pandemic of the Black Death stalked Europe, and London was an epicentre of infection. Yet to make a name as a playwright it was to London you must go.
By 1592, Shakespeare was an established London actor and playwright, leaving his wife and three children – Susanna, Judith and Hamnet – behind in Stratford, where he visited them sporadically. In 1593, 20,000 people in the Greater London area died of the plague; outbreaks of disease continued for the next two decades, as did theatre closures, causing troupes to move out of the capital and tour the provinces with their plays. What did this mean for the Shakespeare family, and how did the loss of an eleven-year-old child impact not only on those left behind, but also on the work that Shakespeare was to produce in subsequent years? These are the central questions addressed by Maggie O’Farrell in Hamnet, which interweaves the progress of the Black Death across Europe with Shakespeare’s family life, building up a heavily textured backdrop to The Tragedy of Hamlet, which was written in the years following the child’s death.
Biographical details for Shakespeare are relatively sparse, as can be ascertained in Bill Bryson’s slim volume Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Harper Collins, 2007), but from what little factual information there is O’Farrell conjures a bustling family life for the bard, with complex interpersonal dynamics and a vivid sense of the insular politics in a medieval market town.
The novel is in two sections: the first switches between 1596, focusing on the days before Hamnet falls ill, and the previous decade, to the courtship and marriage of his parents. The second part of the novel deals with their lives in the aftermath of the boy’s death, culminating in the staging of the play bearing his name.
At the emotional centre of the novel is Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (Ann) Hathaway, of whom little is known other than that she was eight years her husband’s senior, pregnant with their first child at the time of their marriage, and was left his “second-best bed” in his will. O’Farrell has set out to rehabilitate Agnes’s reputation, rejecting speculation about a “bad marriage” and seeding the text with plausible explanations for any of the information about her that is available – why she, a woman with a dowry, should choose to marry a penniless Latin-tutor in his teens; why she is referred to in official records as both Ann and Agnes; why she preferred the marital bed to the “best” one, which she kept for guests.
While the character of Shakespeare himself isn’t given any direct speech, O’Farrell has absorbed the language, symbolism and imagery of his plays and poetry, and used them to generate a background and character for Agnes, suggesting the powerful influence she has over her husband’s artistic vision. She keeps bees and a falcon, and is a gifted herbalist; her feral demeanour sets her apart from her family and neighbours. If all that weren’t enough, and it could be argued that it is, she also has second sight, and can tell what the future holds in store; but sometimes such gifts can deceive.
O’Farrell has said in interviews that she couldn’t have begun to write Hamnet’s story until her own son had passed the age at which he died. The fragility of life is a recurrent refrain; Agnes’s mother died in childbirth, her husband’s favourite sister died in childhood, his mother lost two children before he was born. Hearts harden in response to repeated loss. O’Farrell emphasises the expectations that the family had for young Hamnet, his intellectual abilities, his otherworldliness, the strong protective bond he shared with his twin, Judith, which ultimately caused him to trick death into taking him instead of her. There is a sense that losing a child who has survived for so long is harder to bear, and the text is peppered with proleptic analogues for the tragedy to come:
Hamnet’s grandmother looked everywhere for the litter, intending to drown them all, as is her custom, but the cat thwarted her, keeping her babies secret, safe, and now they are half grown, two of them, running about the place, climbing up sacks, chasing feathers and wool scraps and stray leaves. Judith cannot be parted from them for long. She usually has one in her apron pocket, a tell-tale bulge, a pair of peaked ears giving her away, making their grandmother shout and threaten the water butt. Hamnet’s mother, however, whispers to them that the kittens are too big for their grandmother to drown. “She couldn’t do it, now,” she said to them, in private, wiping tears from Judith’s horrified face. “She wouldn’t have the stomach for it – they would struggle, you see, they would fight.”
Subjects that recur in Shakespeare’s work – adultery, step-parents, bereavement – are given biographical grounding in the plot of the novel, but most potent of all devices is the way O’Farrell uses the symbolism of plants. Vegetation provides the texture of The Tragedy of Hamlet, and in Hamnet, filtered through Agnes’s consciousness, we see the woods and plants which run rife in the play. Preparing her son for burial, Agnes
selects rue, comfrey, yellow-eyed chamomile. She takes purple lavender and thyme, a handful of rosemary. Not heartsease, because Hamnet disliked the smell. Not angelica, because it is too late for that and it did not help, did not perform its task, did not save him, did not break the fever. Not valerian, for the same reason. Not milk thistle, for the leaves are so spiny and sharp, enough to pierce the skin, to bring forth drops of blood.
Her ritual is evocative of Ophelia’s speech in Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5, when she has been driven to madness by grief and betrayal:
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance;
pray, love, remember.
And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you; and here’s some
for me: we may call it herb of grace a’ Sundays.
There are also shades of Ophelia’s watery death as the boy’s shrouded body is borne by his father to the riverside graveyard:
He was ever one for water. She had always had a terrible time keeping him from weed-filled banks, from the dank mouths of wells, from stinking drains, from sheep-soiled puddles. And now, here he will be, sealed in the earth for eternity, by the river.
This intertextual echo that O’Farrell has created in Hamnet shines a light back on The Tragedy of Hamlet as a study of grief and grieving, and provides an entirely plausible interpretation of the play as a way of processing intolerable emotion by transmuting it into art.
In these uncertain times many have turned back to Shakespeare: the Globe Theatre is streaming films of the plays for free, and social media is awash with Shakespeare-related hashtags – perhaps this is for the comfort of the familiar, perhaps for what he has to say about human nature under pressure. By tapping into this huge appetite for the bard’s work, O’Farrell has provided a valuable add-on to what is already a fine historical novel.
Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. Her most recent publication is The Loneliness of the Sasquatch, a translation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock, Alba Publishing. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie