Why did I read this? Both the New York Times and the Washington Post put Hamnet in their top ten books of 2020. The Library Journal and the Guardian listed it among the best books of the year. It was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. How could I not read it?
What is it about? The documentary paper trail of William Shakespeare’s life is sparse. But a few things are known: He married Anne Hathaway in 1582. He was 18, she was 26, and she may have already been pregnant with their first child, Susanna. Three years later, in 1585, they had twins—Judith and Hamnet. In 1596, Hamnet died. He was 11 years old. The cause of death is unrecorded. Two years later, in 1587, Shakespeare bought the second largest house in the village for his wife and two surviving children. When Shakespeare moved to London is unknown, but records suggest that he was well-established there by 1592. When Hamlet was written is also unknown, but by 1603, it had been performed in several places.
Around this slim skeleton, O’Farrell spins the story of Hamnet’s life and death, the marriage of his parents, and their grief. Her imagination was fired by the obvious similarity between “Hamnet” and “Hamlet”—names which were interchangeable in 16th century parish records—and by her sense that Hamlet feels like an unusually personal play, “underpinned by a great weight of grief.” Yet histories and biographies of Shakespeare usually mention Hamnet’s death only briefly, as a sterile fact, accompanied by the horrific child mortality rates of the time, as if children’s deaths were so frequent they were barely worth mentioning. O’Farrell wondered if Shakespeare grieved the loss of his 11-year-old son. She could not imagine that he did not.
O’Farrell was also motivated by historians’ frequent portrayal of Anne Hathaway as an aging spinster who trapped the young William into an unhappy marriage, despite a complete lack of evidence for that narrative. She also noticed that, in his will, Anne Hathaway’s father referred to her not as Anne, but as Agnes, likely pronounced “ah-nyess.” Who more likely to know her true name than her father? And if historians had carelessly used an abbreviated name for her, rather than her birth name, what else had they gotten wrong? Instead of wondering why Shakespeare married Anne, O’Farrell wondered why Anne married him, an 18-year-old boy. What if, O’Farrell explores in Hamnet, Agnes and William married for love?
Would I recommend it? Hamnet is beautifully written and imagined. O’Farrell’s use of language, her use of metaphor and imagery to capture feeling and atmosphere, is sometimes so pitch-perfect I had to stop and reread a sentence. Here, for example, she describes what Shakespeare, as a young Latin tutor, sees when he looks at his classroom: “They look toward him, plants turning to the sun. He smiles at their soft, unformed faces, pale as unrisen dough in the light from the window. He pretends not to see that the younger brother is being poked under the table with a peeled stick, that the elder has filled his slate with a pattern of repeated loops.” And here, she describes how Agnes observes her daughter transforming from child to adult: “Agnes watches the child drop from her younger daughter, as a cloak from a shoulder. She is taller, slender as a willow strip, her figure filling out her gowns. She loses the urge to skip, to move quickly, deftly, to skitter across a room or a yard; she acquires the freighted tread of womanhood.” Plants seeking the sun, unrisen dough, cloaks slipping, willow strips. Metaphors that not only communicate volumes, but that are rooted in objects and experiences familiar to the 16th century.
Then there is O’Farrell’s empathy, her ability to get beneath the skin of her characters and bring the reader with her. Most centrally, this is a book about a family’s grief when a child dies. In O’Farrell’s story, Hamnet’s mother and father and siblings experience grief differently, each with their own reasons for guilt and for anger, each with their own ways of expressing that guilt and anger, often mystifying to others, but so recognizable, so true to the human experience. And O’Farrell expresses that grief even in the structure of her prose; in the days and months immediately following Hamnet’s death, the prose is as fractured as the family’s hearts, skipping from person to person in brief snapshots. “What is the word,” Hamnet’s twin sister Judith asks in one of these tiny moments, “for someone who is a twin but is no longer a twin?” There is no word.
This, though, is why Hamnet may not be a book for everyone. O’Farrell captures the many colors of grief so well that the book is often painful, heart-rending reading. Perhaps a reader in the midst of fresh grief at losing a child would find Hamnet comforting, a reminder that even the most devastating of human losses are shared by many, across both time and space. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it would be turning the knife, cutting way too close to the core. I have no children, yet more than once I had to put the book down, shaking off its sorrows with a walk in the sun or a load of laundry.
O’Farrell provides other reasons to either love Hamnet or to find it tough going. For instance, she never, not once, used William Shakespeare’s name. He is “the glover’s son,” or “the children’s father,” or “her husband”—usually identified through his relationship with others. In interviews, O’Farrell says that this was not really a choice, but rather the only way she could write. “It wasn’t something I necessarily planned,” she has said. “It just became impossible to write that name in a fictional sentence: ‘William Shakespeare came down the stairs and helped himself to breakfast.’ Instantly, I just felt like a total idiot. And if I’m getting pulled out of the narrative here, I can’t possibly expect readers not to feel the same.” And it is a testament to her writing skills that this is never confusing, never feels awkward; on the contrary, it adds to poetic rhythm of the book. (In contrast to Wolf Hall, where Hilary Mantel’s avoidance of Cromwell’s name was a big stumbling block for me.)
Another challenging aspect of the book is the way O’Farrell structures the story. It is not sequential. In the first chapter, Hamnet is dead, being prepared for his funeral, and we are dropped straight into Agnes’ awful, shattering grief. From there, chapters alternately move us through the courtship of Agnes and the glover’s son, Hamnet’s illness and death, and finally the aftermath—not in a linear order, but in a way that puts the moment of Hamnet’s death in the center, as a divider between before and after. Interspersed in the story are occasional departures into an even more omniscient narrator, one with the cadence of a bard, one who shares myths, or who has an owl’s-eye view of the village, or who follows a flea carrying plague from a distant trading ship. For the reader, this creates an experience of circling the story, almost literally, while zooming in and out and up and down. On the whole, I found it marvelous, entrancing; at times, however, my eyes narrowed in a what-the-hell-is-happening kind of way.
O’Farrell’s development of Agnes may also divide readers. In Hamnet, Agnes is something of an outsider to her own family—the odd one, the girl who prefers the company of her hawk, who prefers spending time in the forest to time at home, who is unconventional in ways that fuel gossip. As an adult, Agnes is a healer, expert in using plants to heal. She is also a seer; she can intuit a person’s heart through the touch of their hand, and she can predict the future. O’Farrell uses Agnes’ power to shape and define her grief; it is one of the cruelest agonies of the book that the seer did not foresee her son’s death, that the healer could not heal him when he fell ill.
O’Farrell also uses Agnes’ powers to explain what she saw in Shakespeare, why she was drawn to him:
“When she had taken his hand that day, the first time she had met him, she had felt—what? Something of which she had never known the like. Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town. It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all—it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them. A sense, too, that something was tethering him, holding him back; there was a tie somewhere, a bond, that needed to be loosened or broken, before he could fully inhabit this landscape, before he could take command.”
I loved the idea of Agnes as unconventional, loved the idea of Agnes as an herbalist, someone who knows all there is to know about the healing properties of plants. Loved the idea that Agnes Hathaway and William Shakespeare were drawn to one another because they did not see the world as others did, because they had desires and ambitions and talents beyond the narrow expectations of their families. I did not love the idea of Agnes as having some sort of supernatural foresight. This is where O’Farrell lost me. As a reader, I was fully invested in the idea that Hamnet was telling a story that could have been, that was connecting the dots between the widely-spaced facts of Shakespeare’s life in a way that was plausible as well as moving. Giving Agnes too much that was magical undercut that plausibility.
For me, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hamnet is how deeply thoughtful it is. The story of Hamnet has haunted O’Farrell since her university days, she has said, and she set out to honor the memory of a forgotten boy whose influence may survive in the plays and poetry his father left behind. In so doing, she gave her Agnes the agency denied her by the misogynist myths. She also gave her Agnes the expertise on herbs and falconry on display in Hamlet, making Agnes the source of at least some portion of Shakespeare’s wide-ranging knowledge, and thus granting her an imprint on his work. And she created a William Shakespeare who adored his wife but who could never be happy as a village glover, a Shakespeare who coped with grief the only way he knew. With his words.
Then, to make her story feel as authentic as possible, O’Farrell revised her drafts with an OED at her side, to make sure she wasn’t using anachronisms in vocabulary; she planted her own Elizabethan physic garden; and she learned how to fly a hawk. The result is a beautiful, poetic, and immersive book, as well as a book that makes me want to read a biography of Shakespeare. But I can’t. Because no biography of Shakespeare will tell the tale that O’Farrell tells in Hamnet, and that’s the tale I’d like to believe.