What’s in a Name?: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet Will Make You Think Again about Hamlet


Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel was launched on Twitter during the lockdown. However, when the Hay Festival (normally held each May in Hay-on-Wye, Wales) was transferred online, over 12,500 listeners logged on to hear her talk about Hamnet to the festival director Peter Florence. He predicted that in a year’s time “the book will be garlanded with prizes”. No surprise therefore that it’s already shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Hamnet is O’Farrell’s eighth novel (not counting her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am), and the one set furthest back in history. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox starts against the background of the British Empire in India and Edwardian Edinburgh, before moving to more recent times as it spans Esme’s lifetime from the 1930s to the 90s. O’Farrell’s 2010 Costa award winner, The Hand That First Held Mine, similarly stretches over an arc of around sixty years from the Soho art scene in post-war London to the present day. O’Farrell says she first heard about William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet from her English teacher at secondary school in Scotland. But it was only after her own son had passed his eleventh birthday that, she says, “I gave myself a talking to, after I finished my memoir, and said, it’s now or never.”

Even though it’s the novel she’s “been wanting to write for over thirty years”, nothing prepared her “for how disorientating it would be to write about the sixteenth century. I felt that I had to relearn everything I knew about constructing a sentence, a paragraph, a line of dialogue. There were whole swathes of metaphors and images suddenly unavailable to me; I could no longer reach for similes that came easily to me. I could not say ‘her scream was like a fire alarm’ because, of course, such things didn’t exist in Elizabethan Warwickshire.” Like various others, she found herself writing with the Oxford English Dictionary at hand. “The experience of writing Hamnet reminded me most of my first forays and attempts into fiction, back in my early 20s: that sensation of feeling your way in the dark, not knowing how to proceed. It was invigorating; it made me work hard.”

Her research was certainly not confined to books, but rather, for Hamnet, “I did a lot of practical research: I flew kestrels in woods, I planted a medicinal herb garden, I went mudlarking along the Thames, I walked around Stratford and the Globe, I learnt how to make Elizabethan cures from plants and flowers. That was all a lot more fun than sitting at my desk.”

The strategy certainly paid off because the setting – for the most part, Stratford-upon-Avon – and the moment – around 1596 – have been completely absorbed and then cast aside. What is left is pared down to the human story, the intimate world seen through the eyes of the characters she portrays. When asked more about her writing, she replies: “I wanted to write the kind of historical novel that I like to read. The books I admire most are the ones which wear their history lightly.” Indeed, none of the key events of the period are mentioned: no queen, no court, no politics. “I was writing about people living in a small, rural market-town,” O’Farrell says, “and I’m not sure how much larger historical events would have impinged on their consciousness. They were probably too caught up in their day-to-day lives, the rituals of work and family.” Even religion, that fundamental glue – and divider – of society, is peripheral. When I asked O’Farrell about this, she replied: “Religion was such a fraught and freighted issue in Elizabethan society. You could be fined, for example, for not attending church – Shakespeare’s father, John, was. Some of the only evidence we have of Shakespeare being in a particular time and place are the records of his attendance at a church in the parish of Bishopsgate, London. Catholicism was outlawed, its priests forced into hiding, and recusants punished. I can’t believe, however, that these systemic and enforced worship could have forced people into certain spiritual beliefs. There must have existed, beneath this sequestered system, rebellious forms of worship and also non-belief. My character of Agnes loses her belief with the early death of her mother in childbirth, and this atheism is a theme that runs beside her throughout the book.”

Although titled Hamnet, the book’s pivotal character is Agnes. When O’Farrell first conceived the idea, she intended to write about Hamnet and his link to the play Hamlet: “I envisaged it as a book about fathers and sons”, she writes. However, “There is often a point, in the process of writing a novel, when it begins to veer off in a direction you may not have originally planned. This was the case with Hamnet. Hathaway hijacked the book.”

“I really enjoyed creating the character of Hamnet’s mother,” she tells me. “We are so accustomed to calling her ‘Anne Hathaway’ but her father’s will clearly names her as ‘Agnes’. That was an electrifying, defining moment in the writing of the book. In giving her what is presumably her birth name, I’m asking readers to discard what we think we know about her and see her anew.” In fact, so little is known about Agnes/Anne Hathaway that O’Farrell’s portrayal has opened up entirely new possibilities, most fascinatingly how Agnes’s knowledge of plants and herbal medicine – usually credited to Shakespeare’s own learning – seeped into her husband’s plays. Certainly, this Agnes is far removed from some of the more traditional views: “If you ask someone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife, you’ll probably receive one of two answers. Either: he hated her. Or: she tricked him into marriage. Historians and biographers and critics have for a long time inexplicably vilified and criticised her, creating a very misogynistic version of her. And their evidence? Hathaway sceptics all fall back on the same overhandled facts: that Shakespeare only left her his ‘second-best bed’ in his will, that he was eighteen to her twenty-six when they married, that their first child was born only six months after the wedding. I wanted to persuade people to think again, to not rush to conclusions.”

The vivid poignancy of the novel lies in the death of a child, the boy Hamnet, and the way his family tries – or fails – to come to terms with that overpowering grief. She was prompted to explore this agony because “I felt there was a terrible assumption, in certain biographies, that they might not have grieved him simply because mortality was so high for children in the sixteenth century. He was eleven, I wanted to shout, how could they not have grieved?” O’Farrell is no stranger to such agonising moments. The subtitle of her 2017 memoir is Seventeen Brushes With Death. Hamnet, too, tries to “hoodwink” death: he partially succeeds and his twin sister survives. The two figures Agnes knew would be beside her own deathbed are in fact her daughters, Susanna and Judith. The tragedy that O’Farrell cannot explain is why none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries ever thought to ask them for their views of their own father. O’Farrell’s reimagining of Agnes in the days after Hamnet’s death are supercharged with emotion and insight. Grief for his son affected “the father” – Shakespeare is never named in the book – quite differently. “I was immediately struck by the sad confluence of these names,” O’Farrell says. “What did it mean for a father to call a play after his dead son? And how might Hamnet’s mother have felt about it? I remember looking down at the cover of the play and covering the ‘L’ of the title with a finger. How easy it was to make Hamlet read ‘Hamnet’.”

One of the most extraordinary chapters in the book describes how, in the summer of 1596, the plague travels from Venice, via other ports in the Mediterranean, before arriving in England and then Stratford, where Hamnet’s sister Judith is infected as she opens a box of precious Venetian glass beads packed in flea-infested rags. O’Farrell could never have known how prescient this would seem on publication in March 2020. “All the maps and graphs I have on my walls, showing sixteenth-century trade routes and plague spread, now look oddly contemporary.”

O’Farrell has certainly changed the way I will watch Hamlet in the future. “In a sense,” she writes, “I’m trying to prove and amplify the significance of his death, as well as his life. I feel that he has been overlooked for too long, and that without his early death we wouldn’t have Hamlet.” As she said at Hay Festival, “the whole play is underpinned by a chasm of grief. And surely it is no coincidence that the opening night of Twelfth Night, a play about twins who lose one another, about hoodwinking others and switching identities, was on what would have been Judith and Hamnet’s birthday.” By fashioning his story, Hamnet is no longer “relegated to a literary footnote”. “He gets very little mention in any of his father’s biographies; his mother has too often been inexplicably maligned and misrepresented. With this book, I wanted to give voice to Hamnet and his mother and sisters, to imagine what life had been like in the glover’s house in Henley Street, and how the tragic events of August 1596 might have played out.”

On a closing note O’Farrell tells me, “I would certainly write another historical novel. And in fact I have just started one – but in a very different setting.” To judge by the adroitness with which she takes us into this Elizabethan world, it is safe to say that she could make any period come alive, and more to the point, any people.

About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is a historian and translator. She is also HNR Features Editor and blogs occasionally at “A World of Words,” https://textline.wordpress.com/

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)

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