Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell
We learned in school that William Shakespeare was married to Anne Hathaway, a woman who was small minded, possibly mentally ill, and more than likely unlovable. That theirs was a loveless marriage, made under duress, and most likely what drove him to stay in London for much of his adult life. Rare is the acknowledgement that we simply do not have enough empirical evidence to draw any solid conclusion as to what Shakespeare’s domestic life was like.
What if the marriage between Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare was strong, and vital? What if it gave Will the emotional support he needed to leave Stratford and thrive in the cutthroat theater business in London? What if Anne Hathaway was not a small minded, menial person, but a woman of great insight and courage?
If that idea intrigues you, then you must read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.
Hamnet was Shakespeare’s only son, a twin to Judith, baptized in 1585 and buried in 1596 at age 11. This is all we know of the boy. But out of this scant knowledge, Maggie O’Farrell weaves a story that is rich, involving, mind-bending, and beautifully written.
While young Hamnet is a major character in the book, it is his mother, Agnes, who takes center stage. (The woman we know as Anne Hathaway in public documents was called Agnes in writings by her family, and so Maggie O’Farrell calls her Agnes in the book.) Agnes is the daughter of a well to do landowner and is both admired and feared for her strong will, her lack of convention, and her unusual gifts as a healer, a herbalist, and as someone who can “read” a person by touching their hand. When she declares she wishes to marry “the Latin tutor” who teaches her brothers, someone in whom she senses a great depth, the union is rebuffed as he is known mainly as a lazy ne’re-do-well. So Agnes seduces the young man, gets pregnant, and forces the marriage.
No need to go into expository detail, as fascinating as it is. What is more marvelous is how Ms. Farrell crafts her tale. David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks) calls the book, ‘A thing of shimmering wonder’, and I can think of no better way to describe it. Warwickshire of the 1580s comes alive in this novel, but in an intimate, familial way, through the sensitivities of Agnes, and later, young Hamnet. (Shakespeare himself, while a character in the book, is never named, but remains “the Latin tutor” or “the youngest son” or “the beloved father”.) The focus of the story stays on the things we don’t know, built on the tiny snatches of what we do, and yet the narrative hangs together so strongly and so cohesively that it is not hard to believe the tale spun in Hamnet is true.
It is not always an easy book to read. The treatment of women, especially women who existed outside of the norm, is maddening to our modern sensitivities (although Agnes would not have understood our angst). Life in England in the late 1500s and early 1600s was not easy to begin with, and bedeviled by the intermittent plague that devastated families and derailed economies. And the death of a child, especially a beloved child, is never easy to witness.
And yet, there is such beauty in this book, and such strength. Beauty despite hardship, despite grief. There may not be triumph, but there is endurance, and grace, and conviction. There is an amazing testament to love and to marriage, despite the odds against both. And there is a homage to a young boy, gone too soon, in one of the greatest plays of our time, now told in a tale that makes the story of that young boy, that famous playwright, and the woman who fiercely loved both of them, so much bigger and heartfelt than what has come before.
It’s glorious. And you should read it. All of you.