“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell: the death of Shakespeare’s son, and the famous play

Back in my college days, I studied Shakespeare for three quarters my sophomore year. I stayed the course because of the intense, entertaining, petite professor who sat on the front edge of the desk as she shared with us her love of the bard’s great works. Hands gesticulating and voice energized, she made the plays exciting, and when we got it – the meaning of a dialogue, a turn of fate, the brilliant wit – she leaped off the desk with fervent joy or passionate lecturing.

Perhaps such a leap is why I remember the discussion of Hamlet’s decision to fight Laertes, despite his intuitive uneasiness. She talked about Hamlet’s acceptance of what was at hand as an important turning point, maybe even more significant than the famous turning point of Polonius in the closet. She impressed it on us, emphasizing Hamlet’s response to Horatio that in part reads, “The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Of all that’s to be remembered from Hamlet, including the well-known soliloquy “To be or not to be,” and Polonius’s oft-quoted advice, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” it’s Hamlet’s final, calm acceptance that had the greatest impact on me. It often in my own life pops up when I anxiously don’t want to roll with what life has given me. Yes. Readiness is all. Let be.

Now it comes to mind after reading the new novel Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. Her story excellently imagines how and why Shakespeare’s only son died and suggests a connection to the play Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark is not a stand-in for the 11-year-old boy, but there’s a hint the great playwright in this fictionalized story had to of had his son in mind when creating the play. Perhaps, for example, he thought “readiness is all” fit what the boy may have believed when he made a decision, like Hamlet, that would surely lead to his death.

Before the story begins, O’Farrell notes that a boy named Hamnet on Henley Street in Stratford, England, brother to older sister Susanna and twin to Judith, died in 1596, age eleven, and four years or so after his death, the boy’s father wrote a play called Hamlet. She also tells us that the names Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable in Renaissance England, according to 16th and 17th century records,

These points are the historical set-up, the key facts we need to know for this story to work because the name “Shakespeare” is never mentioned throughout the narrative, neither as the last name of Hamnet nor in reference to his father. Shakespeare is always referred to as Latin tutor, son, brother, husband, and father. The absence is an effective tactic that makes the family story enticing for what we know but isn’t stated. It also prevents the famous bard from stealing the limelight in a story primarily about his son and his wife.

Life in Renaissance England robustly comes to live on the page, as do the happenings at Henley Street, where a glove-maker’s family resides, including the abusive father John who’s in disgrace from shady business dealings and his oldest son, a Latin tutor, sent to a farm to teach young boys. The restless tutor is bored out of his mind until the afternoon he sees through the classroom window a girl carrying a hooded kestrel perched on her arm, unaware she’s the strange girl from the forest, the one villagers say is “unmarriageable.”

The ensuing clandestine love affair and quick marriage is as dramatic and colorful and scheming as anything in a Shakespearean comedy or romance. So too is the girl’s odd gift: by gripping the flesh between thumb and forefinger, Agnes can find out everything she needs to know about a person. Shakespeare’s wife is known to us as Anne, but O’Farrell changed it in the story to the name that appears in her father’s will. It’s one of a few character changes she mentions in her Author’s Note.

The young couple lives with her husband’s family. Agnes wins them over despite her unusual ways, including her disappearance to give birth to her first child in the forest in one of the novel’s most astonishing scenes. Her healing powers draw villagers to the house for her medicinal concoctions. She’s busy with her life but still notices her husband’s increasingly frustrated and downcast spirit. He’s tethered to his father’s trade. Agnes finds a way to get him sent to London under the ruse of expanding the family business, knowing it is there he will be intellectually set free. He returns to Stratford one or two times a year, when the Black Death closes the playhouses, and also when the twins are born.

She can tell, even through her dazed exhaustion, even before she can take his hand, that he has found it, he is fitting it, he is inhabiting it – that life he was meant to live, that work he was intended to do. It makes her smile, there on the bed, to see him stand so tall, his chest thrown wide, his face clear of worry and frustration, to inhale his scent of satisfaction.

Meanwhile, 11 years later, told in chapters alternating with the early family life, Judith succumbs to the bubonic plague. Hamnet, alone in the house with his suddenly stricken twin, searches for his mother, who’s in the fields tending her bees, while the grandmother, maid and older sister are in town. He leaves a message at the doctor’s house and races home to Judith’s bedside, panicked over her worsening condition.

What follows is all-at-once moving, magical, and distressful.

Maggie O’Farrell writes:

… it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or “pestilence,” as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.

From the Author’s Note

How Hamnet dies is not what you would expect. It’s a very clever imagining, and a sensitive, profound depiction of grieving by the family comes next. This is especially true of Agnes, who misinterpreted what she saw in the future when her children were born. She is the book’s stand-out character, uniquely alive, her intimate quirks and lively interactions unquestionably strong and of the time.

Some years after Hamnet’s death, Agnes learns that her distant husband, isolating in grief in London, by now “a man of consequence,” has written a play and given it the title of their son’s name. She travels to the playhouse in the overcrowded metropolis where she watches her husband play the role of the ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s murdered father. In Act I, Scene V, the ghost alone on stage with Hamlet speaks words that become the powerful last words of this strikingly original new novel. Although spoken by the ghost, we know they are from the dead son Hamnet. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

2 thoughts on ““Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell: the death of Shakespeare’s son, and the famous play

  1. It was soooo good to see your blog in my inbox and to hear the folks on the book program on WOSU today. Now I have a whole list of books to look forward to.


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