Do You Know the Strange, Lovely Tale of Shakespeare's Wife
Read Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet
Little-known spouses of very famous people
Everyone has heard of Shakespeare, but very few know about his wife, his children, or his personal life. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, is a historical fiction novel that imagines the little-known family of this bigger-than-life writer. A marriage obscured by fame. A family without direct descendants. A household living while the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe.
(The hidden lives of spouses of famous people. It’s a concept that I’ve collected notes on for years, intending to write about it in the future. I mean, isn’t it interesting to think about the demeanor and outlook of Amelia Earhart’s husband? What was it like to be Hitler’s little sister? Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife? Does living under the shadow of fame and ambition change who you are?)
No wonder I was enthralled with Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a novel that puts personality into Shakespeare’s wife and gives life (however short) to the playwright’s three children.
A skillful painter of life in another time, O’Farrell illustrates an imagined backstory of Shakespeare’s real life with characters based on historical facts and situations born of her imagination.
A meaningful, memorable novel
I wasn’t the only one enthralled with this beautiful novel. Critics raved about it. In 2020, it was chosen for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Women’s Prize for Fiction, going on to win the 2021 Dalkey Literary Award for fiction. Hamnet also appeared on multiple “Best Books” lists.
“Magnificent and searing . . . A family saga so bursting with life, touched by magic, and anchored in affection that I only wish it were true.” — The Boston Globe
“…a beautiful read, a devastating one, intricate and breathtakingly imaginative…”
— Rachel Joyce
“Brimming with love and passion …At once about the transfiguration of life into art…
Tender and ultimately hopeful.”
— Geraldine Brooks
Hamnet is NOT about Shakespeare
Hamnet is not about Shakespeare. It’s about his family. His parents, his siblings, his in-laws, his wife, Agnes, and his children, Susanna, and twins, Hamnet, and Judith. Dreams and ambitions. Pleasure and pain. Family and foes. But most of all, Hamnet is a contemplation of love, loss, and how grief affects people in different ways.
In O’Farrell’s novel, Shakespeare is a Latin tutor running errands for his abusive, glove-making dad who has lost his political power and the favor of his neighbors. Shakespeare is teaching Latin to a deceased man’s children when he spies “Agnes,” the oldest daughter. Born to a healer, herbalist, and outsider, Agnes learned the art of healing from her beloved mother before she dies in a subsequent childbirth. Her father eventually remarries, and Agnes is denigrated and pushed aside by the new stepmother, Joan.
Shakespeare and Agnes are intrigued with each other, but he is young and has no money or prospects, so her family will not allow them to marry. They decided to take the matter into their own hands, (literally,) and make love frequently, resulting in Agnes’ pregnancy and their hasty marriage. (Warning: You may never look at apples in the same way again!)
The looping timeline of Hamnet
The book has an interesting timeline. It begins with eleven-year-old Hamnet urgently looking for the people of his household, only to find the place deserted. He is searching for his mother — or any adult — who could help Judith, his twin sister, who has taken ill while they are playing.
However, Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, is out collecting herbs for her remedies, caring for her bees, and harvesting her honey when Hamnet searches for her.
The book starts with Hamnet, but the next chapter goes back fifteen years to the courtship of Agnes and William. From that point on, the chapters alternate between what is happening in the present and what happened in the past, usually from Agnes’ point of view.
Powerful, poignant passages
Every person who has ever lived has wished that they could go back and do something differently, obliterating a tragic outcome.
Agnes Shakespeare was no different. One of the most poignant passages in Hamnet is when Agnes realizes that her absence from the house when Hamnet needed her most irrevocably alters the trajectory of her life:
“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. Him standing here, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water.
It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.”
The guilt of grief
Agnes will always feel guilty that she wasn’t there to help her son. It’s a universal feeling that pricks at us all. But in Hamnet, it’s a deeply personal connection to Agnes’ loss of a child:
“Later, and for the rest of her life, she will think that if she had left there and then, if she had gathered her bags, her plants, her honey, and taken the path home, if she had heeded her abrupt, nameless unease, she might have changed what happened next…”
Hamlet, the play
You do not need to know much about Shakespeare to enjoy the novel, but you do need a basic knowledge of Hamlet so that the beautiful tie-in and reversal of roles at the end make sense. You also need to pay attention to what O’Farrell tells you on the page before the story begins: Hamnet was a name interchangeable with Hamlet.
You also should know about the term “a play within a play.”
In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, a scene is set up and a play is acted out with the sole purpose of catching a murderer.
In Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell crafts one remarkable, amazing, intricate chapter that describes how the Bubonic Plague traveled from country to country and person to person. It’s sort of like a “play within a play,” or more precisely, “a story within a story.” That fascinating chapter was like unearthing a perfect diamond in the middle of a richly-laden gold mine, and I believe that O’Farrell was purposely mirroring Shakespeare’s own device in creating a “play within a play.”
Nothing is rotten in Hamnet
Once I got into the time flow of the novel, I was immersed in a different time, learning more about commerce, illness, “cures,” and daily life in England in the early 1600s. O’Farrell’s word pictures made me smell the air, feel the temperature, hear the sounds, and experience the emotions of fictional characters who lived four hundred years before me and felt real to me.
Just as O’Farrell theorizes that Shakespeare’s wife and children might have influenced his work, I contemplated the impact that those we love, living or dead, have over us.
If I had to recommend a book to read, Hamnet would definitely be on the shortlist. Interesting concept. Beautifully written. Based on history, asking a question both pointed and potent:
Is someone really dead if he is remembered?
Melissa Gouty is not a Shakespeare scholar, but she loves literature and books. She also writes about marketing, business, gardening, and creativity.