At one point in Hamnet, award-winning Irish–British author Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth novel, the cloaked physician is at the door because Hamnet’s twin, Judith, is unwell, and Hamnet asks his mother whether the physician’s mask is sufficient protection from the plague. His question seems more pertinent than it would have just a few long months ago. This feeling permeates the reading of this exquisite book – a sense that the experience is heightened by the situation that the global pandemic puts us all in, giving this historical fiction a sharply contemporary edge.
O’Farrell provides everyday details of a pestilence that closes down cities and forces people to stay indoors: “The theatres are closed, because of the plague, by order of the court, and so the lodger and his company of players have taken themselves off to tour nearby towns, places where it is permitted to gather in a crowd.” Hamnet’s mother, Agnes, grows medicinal herbs; we are being encouraged to prepare our own hand sanitiser out of scavenged hardware-store goods. O’Farrell couldn’t have known when writing Hamnet, short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, that 2020 would look like this, but she has evidently studied the way past diseases continue to shape our lives. As philosopher George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, more than 100 years ago, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
While O’Farrell begins with the story of Hamnet looking for a grown-up to tend his sick twin, this novel’s real focus is Hamnet’s mother, a character based on Anne Hathaway (also known as Agnes), who was 26 when she married 18-year-old William Shakespeare. And although the Bard is present, for once he is not the story’s beating heart; when he does appear, he is referred to in relation to others: “Agnes’s husband”, “your Latin boy”, “Judith’s father”.
Hamnet toggles between Agnes and Shakespeare courting, and the time when their 11-year-old twins fall ill, a tidy structure that enhances the emotional heft of the narrative. While awaiting the birth of his first child, Shakespeare has been melancholy and needs to get away from his awful father, so he heads to London, where he wins a contract to make gloves for a theatre. Slowly, his life is being lived elsewhere, but Agnes continues where she is.
Working from the scant biographical facts available, this historical writing is unflinching and never twee; we progress through pages of small actions, weighty thoughts and complex description, even as a character simply walks from one room to the next.
What is the point of writing fiction if not to construct possible worlds? In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare created a space in which his son was alive for a bit longer. Agnes comes to understand this when she finally visits London, shown to be the filthy and dangerous (and perversely attractive) place where Shakespeare spends most of his time, and where, despite his wealth and his large house in Stratford-upon-Avon, his lodgings are monastic.
O’Farrell is a pin-sharp observer when she describes the silence that falls on the rowdy crowd as the famous play begins. Every life story deserves to occupy space, and here O’Farrell has set down an imagined version of both Agnes’s and Hamnet’s. If 400 years after the child’s death, his name is still being read, this, then, is a form of celebration. But for a mother attending the theatre, bruised and raw forever with the loss, it is too much. “It is just as she feared: he has taken that most sacred and tender of names and tossed it in among a jumble of other words, in the midst of a theatrical pageant.”
In artfully evoking the delicate repercussions of the past, O’Farrell grapples with the questions Shakespeare faced. “How is anyone ever to shut the eyes of their dead child?” she asks. A lifetime might be spent in grieving, but if Shakespeare stays in London, he can trick his mind into thinking all is well back home, and that his family remains as it was.
A creative person might contend with the difficulty of reconciling the two strands of a life: art and family, something artists have struggled with for centuries. For O’Farrell’s Shakespeare, the distance created by the four days’ travel from Stratford-upon-Avon to London allows him to live two very different lives.
O’Farrell sheds light on the famous anecdote about Shakespeare bequeathing his wife his “second best bed”, and gives a spirited narration of how the pestilence might have reached Warwickshire. When a young cabin boy befriends a monkey in a red jacket, it is a touching reminder of the things in life that are important. This is what Agnes, too, in her earthly wisdom, seems to understand innately, and by extrapolation it is something that O’Farrell points out on every page.
Among the heartbreaking scenes – and we know, even though the book starts with Judith unwell, that it is the other twin we need to worry about – are blisteringly funny moments. When Shakespeare tells Agnes’s brother that Agnes has disappeared, the contrast of the huge, capable brother communicating in short, brusque sentences, and the young, foppish new husband expressing himself in a convoluted and uncertain manner, is hilarious in its awkwardness. The scene when Shakespeare and Agnes meet is worthy of a Shakespearean play.
Reading of a time when it was normal for a grandmother to threaten to drown a child’s kittens might lead us to the lazy belief that, 400 years ago, all life was simply worth less. Because children roamed, without modern vaccines, without sufficient food, and more children died, it is easy to look over the past and think that life was not valued to the same degree. This is a mistake. The babies and children lost to plague, disease and accident were as loved and treasured and mourned as they are today. O’Farrell reminds us that sometimes the past isn’t a foreign country at all – sometimes it’s barely the next room.
Tinder Press, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet".
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