A 19th-century imagining of Shakespeare's family, with Hamnet and Judith Credit: Wikipedia

Shakespeare in grief

Maggie O'Farrell's novel explores what the death of his son Hamnet did to the playwright's family—especially his wife
May 5, 2020

Maggie O’Farrell’s new work of historical fiction takes the disputed facts of William Shakespeare’s biography and finds within the gaps a cast of enthralling characters and a new backstory for his most famous work, Hamlet. Her novel starts in 1596 with Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, discovering buboes on his twin sister Judith’s body. She survives the plague, but a reader with knowledge of Shakespeare’s biography will know that tragedy is in store for the family—and for the boy especially. Hamnet is a story of how grief for a lost son can almost pull a family apart, and how forgiveness and imagination can bring it back together.

The action flicks back 15 years to a young woman called Agnes (the name the father of Anne Hathaway used in his will for her) seducing a Latin tutor some years younger than her, the unnamed young man who will go on to become the great playwright. Agnes’s stepmother discovers the unmarried Agnes is pregnant when there is a smaller pile of linen after her period is supposed to have started. The materiality of childbirth is evocatively lingered over.

Agnes escapes to live with the “not yet of age” tutor’s family. She conspires to have her husband sent to London to pursue his writing. The novel movingly explores how a married couple bound together by circumstance deal with the playwright’s success in the shadow of Hamnet’s death.

Agnes is O’Farrell’s hero. Hamnet’s mother has a witch-like ability to foresee events and heal. She somehow predicts her husband’s destiny and that he has been with other women—a device that feels like a stereotypical gimmick to glamorise a story that already uses Shakespeare’s backstory to hook a reader. Occasionally the novel also lacks direction—pages are spent following across Europe the flea that will infect Hamnet. Yet O’Farrell summons a richly imagined world and explores human relations with powerful tenderness.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder, £25)