Hamnet: A Fresh New Way to Imagine Shakespeare

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

For a person as well-known as Shakespeare, it is a well-known fact that very little is known about him. In the past 400 years, Shakespeare scholars meticulously combed through all Elizabethan England archives that might have the faintest possibility of containing any relevant information. They managed to ascertain answers to questions such as when he was born, whom he married to, how many children he had, and when he died. But answers to another set of more interesting questions, such as what kind of person he was, what he did besides writing and acting, and how was his relationship with his family, remain elusive from us.

As a result, authors who wish to present Shakespeare’s life in more than a skeleton fashion have to resort to speculations. Though facts about Shakespeare the person are scanty, those about his times are more abundant. By carefully weaving together the two strands of by no means equally voluminous information, Shakespeare’s thoughts and actions in particular historical contexts can be inferred. With liberal use of phrases such as “must have”, “could easily”, and “not hard to imagine”, a somewhat satisfying portrait of Shakespeare may emerge.

This is how scholarly research on Shakespeare’s life is done anyway. But novelist Maggie O’Farrell is not satisfied with this approach. Instead, she wants to write with clarity and conviction, and to achieve this lofty goal, she has to admit upfront what she writes is only fiction.

She didn’t set out to write a fictionalized biography from the cradle to the grave, however. Instead, she focused on the pivotal event in Shakespeare’s life, the death of his only son Hamlet at 11. The novel begins with Hamnet, alone in an empty house, frantically looking for help as his twin sister Judith suddenly falls ill. It then flashes back to when Shakespeare, as a young Latin teacher, meets the older sister of his students, Anne Hathaway (whose name O’Farrell changed to Agnes), for the first time. The thread of Will and Agnes falling in love, getting married, and bringing three children into the world, interspersed with the narrative in which Hamnet, after realizing that even adults couldn’t restore Judith’s health, wills himself to illness, essentially replacing Judith in meeting death, forms the first part of the book.

The second part deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death, namely the disintegration of Will and Agnes’ marriage and the creation of Shakespeare’s best-known character and his son’s namesake, Hamlet. Shakespeare’s marriage is troubled and passionate at once. But marriage is put under enormous stress by a family tragedy, as many modern novels depict. Yet, the tribulation of life can be transformed into art. When, at the end of the story, Agnes travels to London and arrives at the Globe, she realizes her husband has written a play where the father dies instead of the son. As the ghost Hamlet utters “Remember me” to Hamlet his surviving son on the stage, I’m sure she feels that there is still something that binds the family together. There is the possibility to restore affection and hope.

O’Farrell’s language is melodic and enchanting. While reading the book, you can smell the leathers’ tang in the glover’s workshop and the apples’ fragrance in the winter storage and catch a glimpse of the rain-glazed Stratford street and the pale sun hanging in the London sky. Characters around Shakespeare, his parents, siblings, and children all come vividly to life.

For readers who have just happened upon this book and don’t necessarily know or care to know Shakespeare, this is a beautifully written family drama about a tragedy that is both traumatic and transformative. But readers interested in Shakespeare and are drawn to this book for this specific reason will inevitably compare what they read here with what they already know and decide whether it is consistent with their own imagination.

As someone who has read, and been obsessed with, Shakespeare for only a year, I feel this is a book about Agnes more than anyone else. Hamnet is only a secondary character, although his name is in the title. So is Shakespeare, although the book is ostensibly about him. Throughout the book, Agnes takes center stage. She has won over Shakespeare’s love despite the eight-year age difference. She is strong, independent, intelligent, and exciting, a woman unlike any of her peers.

Is she a bit ahead of her time? Maybe. Her relationship with all the men in her life, her husband Will, her brother Bartholomew, her father-in-law John, her son Hamnet, always appears somewhat, eh, modern. I know that today’s authors are so eager to create strong female characters that their protagonists can be anachronistic. Still, I haven’t decided whether this is something I should be annoyed or pleased with.

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Victoria Z.

Victoria Z.

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Technologist turned essayist, Victoria writes about books, movies, travel, politics, technology, and the Silicon Valley lifestyle.