historical fiction books | historical romance books
Some Thoughts on Hamnet
By Rebecca D’Harlingue
April 29, 2022

I loved Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. I’ve read it twice and skimmed it numerous other times. It’s the kind of book that a writer thinks, If I could write a book a fraction as good as this, I would be fulfilled.

 One of the many intriguing aspects of the novel is the treatment of Shakespeare’s wife, here called Agnes, the name that her father used in his will rather than Anne, Hathaway.  Quickly realizing that this was no common portrayal of Shakespeare’s wife, I did some searching. O’Farrell has said that she was inspired to write the novel in part by the indignation she felt on Anne’s behalf after reading Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, in which Greer systematically refutes the many assertions made about Anne Hathaway that portray her as an uninteresting country woman who seduced the young Will, forcing him into marriage. Greer points out that Anne was from a secure, prosperous family, and had a good dowry, while Shakespeare was only eighteen, had no trade, and was from a family whose father was disgraced. Furthermore, Greer argues that Shakespeare did care about his family, and when he retired, he returned to Stratford and lived with Anne.

 I also found an interesting detail which serves as a caution to historical fiction writers to not interpret centuries-old facts in a modern light. Some scholars pointed to Shakespeare’s will, in which he bequeathed his “second-best bed” to his wife, as evidence of the disdain he had for her. However, one source said that this was common practice, as the best one would often go to the next generation, and the widow would get the second-best bed. Another source said that an elegant bed was often used to display wealth, and was even kept on the ground floor so that visitors could see it. The second-best bed may well have been the Shakespeares’ marital bed.

 Names play a significant role in the novel. Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable at the time, thus lending credence to the connection made by O’Farrell between the death of Hamnet Shakespeare and the play Hamlet. Interestingly, Shakespeare is never named in the book. This takes the focus off of him so that we can concentrate on Agnes’s story.

 O’Farrell gave an amusing explanation in an interview, saying that, “When you’re sitting at your computer, immersed in the world you’ve created, and have to write: ‘William Shakespeare had his breakfast…’ it’s impossible not to think: I’m an eejit. Even calling him William seems colossally presumptuous.” Still, the brief times that O’Farrell presents what it is like to be Shakespeare, it seems fascinatingly believable. Agnes senses that she knows what he is going through.  “His mind is crammed with a cacophony, with strife, with overlapping speech and yells and yelps and whispers, and she doesn’t know how he stands it…”

 It takes a lot of self-confidence to write about someone like Shakespeare, but to me it seems that O’Farrell is more than up to the task. Her story-telling is masterful. Even though we know from the beginning that Hamnet will die, she still somehow manages to build suspense until his final moments. I found the ending of the novel to be one of the most affecting that I have ever read. When I finished, I immediately went back and reread the last few pages. It is not a simple ending, but O’Farrell gently guides us through until we are left astounded.

 Many have said that the novel is about grief, and in large part that is true. O’Farrell immerses us in Agnes’s despondency upon the death of her son. Yet she also shows how Agnes carries on, not in any heroic sense, but simply as a woman who has no choice but to keep going, even through all of her sorrow.

 Finally, O’Farrell’s use of language is worthy of a book about the Bard. She was born in Ireland and went to school in Scotland and Wales, and was surrounded by stories and songs in her childhood. The language in Hamnet is lyrical. I would read it just for the prose. “There is a part of her that would like to wind up time, to gather it in like yarn. She would like to spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamnet’s death… There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them.”

To hear more, join Paper Lantern Writer Kathryn Pritchett and me today at 5:00 pm PT on our Facebook group SHINE, or on our youtube channel.

Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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