By Maggie O’Farrell. Review.
Like the troubled prince, I am a little hesitant. I have no will to give this story away. Which is strange, given that so much is known about Shakespeare already that it might not seem possible to come up with any drastic spoilers. Still, Hamnet is not really about Shakespeare. The title tells us we are going to learn about the boy. And yet, Hamnet is, on further reflection, about so much more than Shakespeare’s son. There is inevitably so much of the William Shakespeare himself in this novel, even when he is so frequently absent from the centre of the action. This is a study in family dynamics, and the family is extensive. The result is glorious and inglorious in equal measure.
Winner of the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction
This book brought me so much sadness. I can’t get away from that. But sadness is what I look for in stories, so I find this aspect of Hamnet intensely satisfying. And yet, the book also brought me so much joy. Joy in reading such a finely crafted, evocative tale, and yes, in discovering so much that I never knew about Shakespeare and his family. Large swathes of the story must have been imagined, based on only partial historical evidence, and this is very much a work of fiction. But it all feels so convincing. So likely to have been as it was. And the story is all the more wonderful for the way it can never quite be either proved or disproved.
Hamnet is a novel of contradictions and alternatives. Shakespeare is not named in the story. He is referred to as ‘husband’, ‘father’ and ‘Quill-meister’; okay maybe not that last one, but never by his own name. This is, after all, the book of Hamnet, the boy whose name we know so well, though not as we know it. The boy whose life is tragically curtailed, and who becomes the cause of the desperation, rather than inspiration, behind the greatest dramatic tragedy of all time. The names are interchangeable.
This is also the story of Agnes. A variation again; we were expecting Anne. What we might not have been expecting was that she has mystical powers and can see deep into the human psyche. Agnes also has extensive knowledge of plants and their medicinal qualities. Acutely aware of her own abilities and the limitations of others, Agnes takes herself into the woods to give birth alone, to Susannah. Afraid and appalled by this behaviour, her family stop her doing the same again when the waters break for the twins.
And so to the twins, Judith and Hamnet. So close, so beloved of each other. Judith is at death’s door throughout the novel, until Hamnet realises how to reverse the roles, much to everyone’s horror when they find out what he’s done. With her husband away, Agnes might expect support from her mother-in-law, but Mary is a constant source of antagonism. Worse still, Agnes is estranged from her stepmother Joan. Her birth mother died young. The Hamnet/Hamlet story might be about male sorrow, but there is so much female sadness, bitterness and disconnection here. More than enough material for another stage tragedy.
All the while, the unnamed playwright is so little involved. Latin tutor in his early days, then assistant-to-the-manager, his father, in the glove trade, eventually actor and dramatist in London. Happy as Larry Olivier, living his dream. Playing away from home; at least Agnes thinks so. She can smell the scent of lady admirers on his clothes on the rare occasions he comes home. He is certainly having fun on stage. Acting out stories he borrows from many different sources, then making them his own. Presenting them for all of us for all time.
This is all wonderful for the husband, until he finally gets the message – all is not well – and he rides cross-country back to Stratford-upon-Avon. A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse! Home again at last, he finds life has moved on without him, and the Black Death has found its way to his door. Agnes’s door. Exit left for the boy twin.
Hamnet has pride of place on my top bookshelf. This book is so enchanting. So terrifying. So absorbing too. A story of how things might have been. How they must have been. Tragic. Beautifully told. I was dreading reaching the end and yet, come the end, I felt rewarded and content. Thank you, Maggie O’Farrell, for writing Hamnet. For providing us with this missing Shakespeare.
Maggie O'Farrell and her muse
Hamnet is an essential, enriching contribution to the wider story around Shakespeare's life and works. A triumph for realist fiction, celebrating those who played out family life for real with the Bard, often alongside his ghostly absence. Still, the playwright is never far from mind, for all of us, readers and characters alike. We need this unnamed figure without whom the story would be just sad. With him, in the end, the story becomes truly and completely tragic. Hamnet is the book I never knew I needed. And now, I cannot imagine a literary life without this novel.
© Eddie Hewitt 2021