An ambitious novel about Shakespeare's wife and son from Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell.
William Shakespeare had three children with his wife, Anne (or Agnes, if you go by her father's will) Hathaway. Susanna was born in 1583, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Hamnet tragically died at the age of eleven. His cause of death remains unknown. There has been much scholarly speculation about the significance of Shakespeare naming his most famous play Hamlet, as both names were interchangeable in Elizabethan times.
Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell has set herself the ambitious task of trying to recreate Shakespeare's family life and somehow explain his seemingly unorthodox marriage arrangements. The novel has two timelines, moving back and forth between the early 1580s, when Shakespeare was courting Anne Hathaway and 1596, the year Hamnet died. O'Farrell portrays Anne (named Agnes throughout) as a bit of a wild nature woman, making her own medicines and working in her village as a healer of sorts. Shakespeare (he is never named, only referred to as either husband or father) is smitten with the unusual Agnes, someone with an uncanny connection to the natural world.
The couple marry and Agnes soon realises that her husband has a mysterious inner life, a restlessness that seeks the wider world. She urges him to move to London, assuring him that she and the children will follow later. That never happens, although Agnes's husband goes on to have a successful career in the theatre. When tragedy strikes, and Hamnet is seriously ill, the boy's father rushes back from London to see his dying boy.
O'Farrell's novel is primarily about grief and motherhood. Shakespeare appears as a half-formed character, and there is even less of Hamnet. The story centres for the most part around Agnes, her inner life, how she copes with grief and her husband's long stays away from home. For that alone, it makes for an affecting and absorbing novel. The scenes depicting the laying out of Hamnet's body are incredibly moving and the myriad botanical references paint an illuminating picture of Elizabethan rural life, with its mixture of natural science and superstition.
How readers appreciate this novel will depend on how they warm to O'Farrell's depiction of the Shakespeares' married life. William is portrayed as rather callous and inconsiderate of his wife's feelings, someone who puts career ahead of family. Agnes and William seem almost strangers to each other. The historical record shows that Shakespeare spent large parts of the year in London, and the novelist has obviously taken this to mean that as a married couple the Shakespeares weren't close and may indeed have been hostile to each other. Some readers may see this reading of their relationship as lacking in imagination, or too quick to jump to easy assumptions.
An engaging, heartbreaking novel about a mother's loss, but a disappointing portrayal of Shakespeare's marriage.
Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell. Published by Tinder Press. $32.99
North Melbourne Books