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Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” shines a necessary light on Shakespeare's early career

4/5 Blue Devils 

Historical fiction is a genre which proves that stories placed in the past are actually in perpetual motion. Typically, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but there is no particular reason as to why that is the case. After hearing many rave reviews of Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet,” I had the perfect reason to end this unintentional historical fiction hiatus. 

In this novel, O’Farrell revists the life and tragic death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet, a twin to a girl Judith, at the young age of 11. While Shakespeare is famous for his own play with one different letter in the title, Hamnet and Hamlet were, in fact, interchangeable names at the time his famous tragedy was written.

In “Hamnet,” a necessary light is shone on the circumstances of Shakespeare’s early career. In modern times, his plays have survived and thrived, but what is just as important are the people and places that have been left behind. Even now, with such a famous individual in the family, Shakespeare’s wife and children remain comparatively tucked away in the fringes of popular culture. Their oversight has become acceptable, with much of Shakespearian education emphasizing his singularity. In the novel, though, O’Farrell shakes things up. Shakespeare’s son brings a new and crucial lens of fatherhood to a man whose personal life is often left offstage for audiences around the world. 

Due to O’Farrell’s vivid detail, each character in this novel demands close attention from the reader, but Shakespeare’s wife is most captivating. Agnes (the moniker for Anne Hathaway) is in tune with occult practices, which often makes her seem whimsical in the novel, but also enigmatic and dangerous. Agnes can be found “burning rosemary,” and her patch of land is labeled a “witch garden” by her difficult stepmother. While she is a healer, she often appears motivated by daydreams rather than responsibilities. 

O’Farrell presents a complex feminist reading of Agnes: both isolated and weak in her marriage, but also capable of expressing her own power. Throughout the majority of the book, Shakespeare is a two days’ ride away in London, gaining attention and interest for his plays. Agnes is left to deal with growing troubles at home, but her absentminded nature often makes her forget the maturity her role demands. 

One of the most fascinating elements of the novel is that Shakespeare is never actually named.  He is “her husband,” “the father,” “the tutor,” the son of “the glover,” but is not defined as “Shakespeare” himself. Without these relationships to friends, his students, and his family members, Shakespeare’s identity in the novel would fade beyond recognition. At first, I found this to be an odd and surprising decision. Now, I wonder, did O’Farrell originally write the novel with his name and etch it out? Or was it like this from the start? Regardless, she preserves an aura of mystery otherwise difficult to create for someone commonly referred to as the greatest writer in the English language. 

Another important feature is that the book’s subtitle is “A Novel of The Plague,” but it is not until O’Farrell narrates how the “pestilence” reaches Warwickshire, England in 1596, when the fictional novel actually hits close to home. While O’Farrell makes the past visible, this discussion of the plague’s looming entry makes it tangible. The plot unravels as expected: shops shut down, families grow anxious, and a blanket of uncertainty coats the county. At this point in the novel, these grim realities of a time four centuries ago become eerily similar to our own recent experiences. As I read, I recognized the steps like a rehearsed roadmap as they evolved before me: hearing of the sickness through word of mouth, retreating, staying indoors while it consumed the outside world. What is clear, though, from a modern-day perspective, is that although medicine has advanced, the destructive capabilities of sickness remain just as devastating when they reach us. While Shakespeare’s daughter Judith is the first child to become infected, she recovers. In one especially intimate scene, though, the all-consuming illness transfers between the twins’ young bodies, almost at the flip of a switch. Hamnet dies, leaving behind a grieving family and a bright future unpaved. 

This novel is rich in its content and presentation, but the reason for my 4/5 Blue Devils rating is that, on occasion, O’Farrell’s flowery language overcomplicated the essence of her fantastic descriptions. These moments of elaborate detail served their purpose in some scenes. In others, however, simple descriptions would have better communicated her points and advanced the plot. After reading, I now believe that experimenting further with the technique of withholding might have made the book better than it already was. As a reader, though, I particularly love when books provide a visual experience, and O’Farrell excels at this. 

Shakespeare is a household name, but Hamnet is still rising into our collective knowledge. O’Farrell’s quest to reimagine tales of the past is a remarkable step in charting this comparatively undiscovered historical figure. Next time you pick up a copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Merchant of Venice,” or “A Comedy of Errors” at your local bookstore, don’t deny yourself this journey into the wings. 

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.”

Bates Crawford is a Trinity senior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates reads on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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