Sharon's Book & Wine Club - November 2020
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
In Hamnet, we follow the story of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son and the events that led up to his death. Maggie O’Farrell has reimagined the grief experienced by these characters and includes interesting, fictionalized back-stories on this famous family.
By focusing heavily on Agnes Shakespeare, William’s wife and the mother to his three children, the book shows how marriage, parenting, and unstable times are just as relatable now as in medieval times.
The historical note at the beginning of the book tells the bare facts:
- In the 1580s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.
- The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven.
- Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.
While little is known about the day-to-day details of William Shakespeare’s life, the story of Hamnet is one of a shared human experience of tragedy that is timeless and especially relevant now.
Summary by Amazon.
Buy the Book
Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, HAMNET is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.
Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.
Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.
This was simply magnificent. I’ve never read a novel by Maggie O’Farrell before this but the way she writes sentences is just exquisite, with full use of the punctuation available to her, she makes you feel each word and its intent. I had goose bumps over and over while reading this; it truly made my heart sing.
‘Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing here, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water.
It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.’
Stylistically, Hamnet has an omniscient narration – the literary technique of writing a narrative in third person, in which the narrator knows the feelings and thoughts of every character in the story. Sometimes we were even privy to the thoughts of an owl perched in a tree, a flea jumping from body to body; this is a narrative technique that needs application only by highly skilled authors in order for it to work to its intended effect. Needless to say, it worked here, in this novel, by this author. The immersion effect was complete.
‘In their apartment, he lets her take his hand, lets her lead him from the fire to a chair, lets his eyes lose focus, lets her rub her fingers through his hair, and she can feel him switch from one character to another; she can sense that other, big-house self, melt off him, like wax sliding from a lit candle, revealing the man within.’
Something worth noting, although I don’t really have an explanation for this, only my own musings, but every character was referred to by name except for William Shakespeare. He was always something other: the Latin tutor, brother, son, husband, father, him. But never William, and the family name of Shakespeare was never mentioned, even though other surnames were. Was it to reinforce the man in his ordinary state of being, before he became extraordinary? To demonstrate the many roles he played within his life before he became known for that one in particular?
‘When the letter reaches him, he – lodger, brother, husband, father and, here, player –’
‘…the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else. Nothing can keep you from it. Not even the death of your own child.’
The novel is divided into two parts. Part one is twofold in the telling: we see what’s happening right now as Hamnet searches for someone to help his twin sister, who has fallen rapidly unwell. We see his family discover what is wrong, the panic, the attempts to save her, the impact her illness has on Hamnet; she is the other half of him. Alternately, within this part, we learn more about his parents, who they were before they married, who they were in the beginning with each other. Part one concludes with the intersection of Hamnet’s birth and death. It is, at the risk of sounding cliché, Shakespearean in effect. Part two of the novel is what comes after; the grief. For me, Agnes’s preparation of Hamnet’s body for burial was both beautifully tender and utterly heartbreaking. The emotion was a physical thing that leaped off the page, evidence once again of the type of writing you are treated to within this novel.
‘For the first time, the tears come for Agnes. They fill her eyes without warning, blur her vision, pouring forth to run down her face, her neck, soaking her apron, running between her clothes and her skin. They seem to come not just from her eyes but from every pore of her body. Her whole being longs for, grieves for her son, her daughters, her absent husband, for all of them.’
And then, there is the play. The birth of Hamlet.
‘Agnes cannot understand what this means, what happened. How can her son’s name be on a London playbill? There has been some odd, strange mistake. He died. This name is her son’s and he died, not four years ago. He was a child and he would have been a man but he died. He is himself, not a play, not a piece of paper, not something to be spoken of or performed or displayed. He died.’
‘Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.
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.’
Yes, this is fiction, and most of it has come from the author’s imagination. But I still will no longer be able to think of Hamlet without thinking of the son. Hamnet is a brilliant work of literary historical fiction. Utter perfection.
In the 20 years since the publication of her first novel, After You’d Gone, Irish-born Maggie O’Farrell has wooed readers with intricately plotted, lushly imagined fiction featuring nonconformist women buffeted by the essential unpredictability of life, which can turn on a dime. O’Farrell’s last book, I Am, I Am, I Am (2018), was a nonfiction account of her own unpredictable life, filtered through 17 dramatic, near-death experiences, from her hair-raising childhood through her middle child’s harrowing, periodic anaphylactic attacks brought on by a life-threatening immunological disorder.
With her eighth novel, O’Farrell brilliantly turns to historical fiction to confront a parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child. Set in Stratford, England, in the late 16th century, Hamnet imagines the emotional, domestic, and artistic repercussions after the world’s most famous (though never named) playwright and his wife lose their only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, to the bubonic plague in 1596. Four years later, the boy’s father transposes his grief into his masterpiece — titled with a common variant of his son’s name — in which the father dies and the son lives to avenge him.
O’Farrell’s narratives are rarely straightforwardly chronological. In Hamnet, she toggles between two timelines, one beginning on the day the plague first afflicts Hamnet’s twin sister Judith, the other circling back to the beginning of their parents’ passionate relationship some 15 years earlier.
In this telling, the woman we know as Anne Hathaway is called Agnes, pronounced Ann-yis, which O’Farrell explains is how her name appeared in her father’s will. She’s a wonderful character, a free spirit and healer who, like her late mother, is most at home in the woods. But she’s also a Cinderella in her nasty stepmother’s household, in which the future playwright — still in his teens with an uncertain future — is indentured as a Latin tutor to help settle a debt incurred by his errant father.
The two abused misfits recognize something special in each other, and the chemistry between them is palpable. A first kiss, later followed by sex that literally rocks and upends the apples in the storage shed, would be heavy-handed in its biblical overtones were it not so beautifully written. Hamnet is, among other things, a love story about a sorely tested marriage.
But before we meet his parents, we meet Hamnet, a smart but easily distractible boy, as he desperately seeks help for his twin sister, who has suddenly taken ill. With rising panic, he checks upstairs and down in his family’s small apartment and his grandparents’ adjacent house, and is anguished to discover that his mother, grandmother, aunt, and older sister are nowhere to be found. His father is off in London staging his plays. The only one home, drinking ale in the off-bounds parlour, is his irascible grandfather, from whom Hamnet has been warned to keep his distance.
As in her earlier novels, O’Farrell seeds her tale with dark forebodings. Agnes, off tending her bees during Hamnet’s frantic search, will come to rue her absence that day:
Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry … It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.
Hamnet vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages — from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we’ve come to expect of O’Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England — a domestic arena in which a few missing menstrual rags on washday is enough to alarm a mother of girls.
About halfway through this tour de force, there’s a remarkable 10-page passage in which O’Farrell traces how the plague reached Agnes’ children. It’s a sequence that would stand out even in more salubrious times, but which holds particular resonance in light of the current global Covid-19 pandemic.
“For the pestilence to reach Warwicksire, England, in the summer of 1596,” O’Farrell writes, “two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.” The unwitting conduits are a master glassmaker in Murano, who in a moment of inattention burns his hands while blowing glass beads, and a cabin boy on a merchant ship, who becomes enchanted with an African monkey in Alexandria and picks up a stowaway infected flea in his red neckerchief. With the tenaciousness of a forensic viral chaser, O’Farrell charts the flea and its progeny’s deadly path, through cats, rats, midshipmen, officers, glassmaker, and into the boxes of glass beads, one of which Hamnet’s sister Judith excitedly unpacks when it is delivered to a Stratford seamstress who has been eagerly awaiting them for a client’s fancy gown.
Unaware of the source of her children’s illness, poor Agnes is left to suffer the consequences. O’Farrell writes, “There is a part of her that would like to wind up time, to gather it in like yarn. She would like to spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamnet’s death.” But of course she realizes, “There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way.”
Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare’s death, the story O’Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant.
Book Club Questions
The Story Plot
- What are the major plot points that commit Agnes (and the reader)?
- What are the turning points that cause Agnes to act and/or change? Is it believable?
- Do you like how the book goes back and forth between the present and the past (does it keep you engaged and are the stakes constantly escalating)?
Character Arc / Hero’s Journey
- At which point did you most relate to Agnes as her story developed?
- What false-truth does she believe at the beginning of the story?
- What is it she wanted verses what it is that she needed?
- Is there an unsung hero in the Shakespeare family?
- Did it work for you? Are you glad Agnes made the trip to London?
- Do you think Maggie O’Farrell fulfilled the promise of the characters?
- What would you change if you could rewrite it?
Symbolism and Foreshadowing
- Let’s talk about symbolism. What symbolism was used in the book?
- Use one adjective to describe the writing itself.
- What did you love most about Hamnet?