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Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague


Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague

Not that much is known (but much is vigorously debated) about Shakespeare’s biography, which is probably one reason why his life story is so enticing for a novelist like Maggie O’Farrell.

In the front and back matter to her new book, HAMNET, O’Farrell notes two interesting facts. One is that Shakespeare’s young son, Hamnet (which also could be transcribed as Hamlet, given the loose spelling conventions of the time), passed away some time before the production of Shakespeare’s play by (almost) the same name. The other is that, despite living through an era during which bubonic plague outbreaks were so normal that they routinely shut down all the theaters for months at a time, Shakespeare never directly addressed the devastating plague in his writing. O’Farrell draws her own conclusions from these biographical and literary tidbits --- and her novel is born.

"HAMNET is a profoundly empathetic work, one that will convince readers that there are always new stories to tell, even about those people most familiar to us."

HAMNET is both achingly intimate --- scenes of sex, childbirth and cleansing a dead body are rendered in vivid detail --- and broadly expansive. In one memorable section, for example, O’Farrell traces the several generations of fleas responsible for the plague traveling from merchant ships to the Shakespeare family’s doorstep in Warwickshire.

Notably, Shakespeare is never mentioned by name in the narrative; he is always “the tutor,” “the husband,” “the father.” With this technique, O’Farrell effectively strips away the bard’s mystique for 21st-century readers, instead placing emphasis on “the man” and, especially, his remarkable family.

The real heart of HAMNET (beyond the title character himself) is Shakespeare’s wife, here named Agnes (which was, as O’Farrell notes in her afterword, the name mentioned in her father’s will). She is a remarkable woman, whose vivacious, unexpected personality entices Shakespeare and will draw in readers as well. Agnes is drawn to nature and the unexplained; she can tell a person’s future by pinching the muscle between their thumb and forefinger, and she becomes both admired and mistrusted for her abilities with healing herbs.

Although Agnes can barely read or write, it’s clear that she’s every bit as observant and poetic as her husband. As she walks in a procession on her wedding day, she reflects on the things that surround her: “She sees everything. The rosehips on the hedgerow that are turning to brown at their tips; unpicked blackberries, too high to reach; the swoop and dip of a thrush from the branches of an oak by the side of the track... She feels the prickle and shift of the herbs and berries and flowers of her crown, feels the minute trickle of water within the veins of their stems and leaves. She feels a corresponding motion within herself, in time with the plants, a flow or current or tide, the passage of blood from her to the child within. She is leaving one life; she is beginning another. Anything may happen.”

Agnes may have the hands of a healer and the heart of a poet, but she doesn’t really understand the work her husband does, even though she’s the one who urges him to move to London and escape a stifling existence assisting in his father’s glove-making business. Only at the novel’s end, when she ventures to the Globe and sees an early performance of his play, does she begin to understand two things: his immense gift and the ways in which he constructs his play to honor the life of their child.

HAMNET is a profoundly empathetic work, one that will convince readers that there are always new stories to tell, even about those people most familiar to us.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 24, 2020

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague
by Maggie O'Farrell

  • Publication Date: May 18, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1984898876
  • ISBN-13: 9781984898876