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Hamnet / Maggie O'Farrell / RAC 2022-23

Reading Across Campus

The Facts about Hamnet

The following “facts” about Hamnet’s life are offered up by actor David Mitchell, who portrayed Shakespeare in the Ben Elton series on BBC, Upstart Crow, in which the Bard gets the sitcom treatment:

  1. Hamnet Shakespeare, only son of Anne and William Shakespeare, was baptized, with his twin sister Judith, on 2nd February 1585 at Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church.
  2. He and Judith shared their godparents, Stratford baker Hamnet Sadler and his wife Judith, who are thought to have been friends of the Shakespeare family.
  3. Hamnet lived in the Henley Street house with his grandparents, mother and two sisters. With his father living in London, visiting home only occasionally, the family saw William infrequently.
  4. As with his father, it is very probable that Hamnet received an education at King Edward VI School in Stratford.
  5. Sadly, Hamnet died at the age of 11, possibly from bubonic plague, but the cause of death is not certain. He was buried at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford, on 11th August 1586. It is more than likely his father was not present at the time of his only son’s death, nor at his funeral, and may not have received the sad news till after both events.
  6. There is much speculation that William Shakespeare fondly remembered his son with references to him in some of his plays: King John, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Twelfth Night as well as Romeo and Juliet, though the latter may have been written in Hamnet’s lifetime. Another school of thought is that Hamnet was the subject of Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, but there is no evidence for this.

Text adapted from David Mitchell, “Shakespeare’s Children: 35 Facts on Susannah, Judith & Hamnet”: https://adoseofdavidmitchell.wordpress.com/2018/11/07/

The Facts about Agnes (Anne) Hathaway

O’Farrell is not alone in thinking Anne Hathaway has gotten a bum rap over the years. She is described by Katherine Duncan-Jones as “neglected,” along with her daughters. It’s true that Shakespeare set up an alternative household in London during the theatre season, and that, if the sonnets are to be believed, he dallied there with other lovers, such as the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, but O’Farrell contends that the bond between husband and wife went deeper than that, surviving even the death of a child. [Germaine Greer depicts the poet as a sort-of deadbeat dad in her “biography” of Anne in Shakespeare’s Wife.]

From O’Farrell’s “Author’s Note”: “Most people will know [Hamnet’s] mother as ‘Anne’ but she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as ‘Agnes’ and I decided to follow his example. Some believe that Joan Hathaway was Agnes’s mother, while others argue she was her stepmother; there is little evidence to support or discredit either theory” (Hamnet, p. 369).

In another section, Agnes tells the Latin Tutor (Shakespeare is never identified in the book by name) how to pronounce her name: “’It’s Agnes,’ she says. And this name, too, he knows, although he has never met anyone with it. Agnes. Said differently than how it might be written on a page, with that near-hidden, secret g. The tongue curls towards it yet barely touches it. Ann-yis. Agn-yez. One must lean into the first syllable, then skip over the next” (Hamnet, p. 44).

The Plague

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, with a satirical macaronic poem (‘Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel’) in octosyllabic rhyming couplets.In the book, O’Farrell speculates that Hamnet died of the plague, having caught it from his twin. Embedded in the novel is a chapter that traces the progress of the disease, carried by a flea that dropped from a monkey in Alexandria onto the scarf of a cabin boy heading back to his ship, bound for England, in order for “Judith to contract the pestilence and for a tragedy to be set in motion.” [The plague ultimately arrives in a box of Murano glass beads at the shop where Judith does odd jobs for a neighbor; this set-piece may be found in the Tinder Press edition of Hamnet on pages 166-180.] The plague was a recurring presence in 16th century England. When deaths rose above thirty a week, the theatres were shut down, and Shakespeare’s company of players, the Lord Chamberlin’s Men, were forced to “diversify or starve” (Katherine Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life). This fact has led scholars to speculate that the playwright was performing outside of London when Hamnet took ill and wasn’t immediately aware of the boy’s condition.

See also, this Maggie Farrell's Guardian article on plague: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/06/maggie-ofarrell-how-disease-has-shaped-life-as-we-know-it

Image: Paul Fürst, c. 1656. Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, with a satirical  poem (‘Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel’) in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. 

Life in the 17th Century

O’Farrell tells us in Hamnet that Agnes’ mother’s name is Rowan; the rowan tree is symbolic of courage, wisdom, and protection and is associated with witches and wizards (see pp. 56, 120, 156, and elsewhere). 

Handfasting was part of the medieval marriage ceremony and was associated with oath-taking. The hands of both partners were joined, and bound together with a cord or ribbon. Their vows were witnessed and authenticated by the community, as well as the religious authorities. 

Hawking was a popular past time for the upper classes during the Elizabethan period. The queen herself was fond of this form of entertainment.

Hawking is an ancient form of hunting which has been used since the medieval period. It uses trained birds of prey to pursue small game or birds. The trained birds were usually falcons or hawks.  They were subjected to a rigorous course of training by a Falconer. A lot of time was spent on training a hawk or falcon, and keeping it in good condition and in addition to the services of the falconer, it required many pieces of expensive and specialized equipment. This meant it was an entertainment reserved for the wealthy members of society. 

To learn more about life in Elizabethan England see this article at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Voorhies, James. “Elizabethan England.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/liza/hd_liza.htm (October 2002)