Skip to Main Content

Hamnet / Maggie O'Farrell / RAC 2022-23

Reading Across Campus


Chances are, anyone who has been to high school has met the interesting women Shakespeare created: Juliet, her Nurse, Ophelia, Gertrude, even crazy-scary Lady Macbeth. But what we haven't seen - or even given much thought to - are the women who created Shakespeare. Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet provides us with fictional portrayals of both the Bard's mother and his wife to make one think about the women behind the famous playwright.

At its core, Hamnet is a love story. With a fluctuating narrative structure over the course of fifteen years, as well as engaging prose, O'Farrell gives us a fictional backstory to Shakespeare's relationship with his wife, as well as the tragic death of their son. Like all good literature, it makes one question, connect, and feel.

Agnes (based on Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife) appeals to readers because she is offbeat and strong. She raises and trains a bird, one of her closest companions in a life full of loss and abuse. (She is referred to as "the half-mad stepgirl" early on in the novel, as she tends to her family's farm, animals, and fields). She even births her child alone in the woods, knowing the last people she wants involved in this scene are her mother-in-law and skittish husband.

She also teaches herself about plants in order to cure those in her village, and one can't help but notice that her husband pays attention to this expertise. Perhaps Shakespeare's use of medicinal herbs and flowers in his plays came from watching the women around him navigate the fields and woods.

And, while it is common knowledge that Shakespeare (at age 18) married someone eight years his senior because the woman was pregnant, O'Farrell creates a strong sexual tension unexplained in any history book. In addition to this chemistry, she presents the timeless challenge of marital strife over one's duty to those he loves and one's attention to what he needs. Agnes, in a way quite modern, suggests her husband move to London to pursue his playwriting passion knowing full well the temptations of the big city will only take him away from her. The reader accepts that without the strength of this woman, some of the world's greatest works would never have been produced.

The relationship between Agnes and the tutor from Stratford (never referred to as Shakespeare) provides rich entertainment, but the death of the child breaks the reader's heart. History knows Shakespeare lost a child named Hamnet, and then went on to create a play using his name (Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable in Shakespeare's time), but O'Farrell shows us the pain of this loss, first through Agnes, then through the actions of the playwright. In essence, she forces the reader to think about the impact of this death by putting flesh on the bones of this life-altering event.

In addition, O'Farrell personifies death reminiscent of a Shakespearean play, "It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her." But, her picture of Agnes after Hamnet succumbs to the plague is what leaves the reader aching: "She is motionless, back bent, head lowered. It is not immediately apparent that she even breathes." Agnes's transition into this dark abyss - sleeplessness, lack of appetite, disregard for oneself - has been explored in many of the Bard's plays, but O'Farrell brings these emotions to the reader in a year of pandemic loss. It is hard not to be enveloped by the darkness.

Never in all the years that I taught Hamlet to high school seniors did I give thought to what it might have been like for Shakespeare's wife to actually watch the play named after her dead son. In fact, I didn't think the play - other than the name - had much to do with the Bard's personal tragedy. And yet, this is where the brilliance lies.

At the novel's end, O'Farrell uses the famed play to create what any mother who has lost a child longs for - one last glimpse of her son alive: "the yellow hair, the lift of his chin, the doublet undone." She makes one ponder the idea that Hamlet was a gift of love spawn out of great loss. She forces the reader to connect the Prince of Denmark to the boy from Stratford.

O'Farrell takes us to these places and more. She puts us on the back of a horse riding through the filth of London, immerses us in the audience and on the stage at the Globe, and even into a crate of rags and millefiore beads carrying pestilence from one part of the world to another.

But, ultimately, what she does is make us feel the pain of a mother who has lost a child; she fills in the missing pieces of what contributed to one of history's most notable plays in a way that neither questions the truth nor demands it.

Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2020 Shakespeare Newsletter

Source: Hoppin, Patti. "On O'Farrell's Hamnet." Shakespeare Newsletter, vol. 69, no. 2, spring-summer 2020, pp. 63+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.