Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Drumming up a novel with William Shakespeare in the starring role just isn’t done. It’s like writing a bodice-ripper with Jesus as the protagonist. Or an action thriller starring Gandhi.

But though Maggie O’Farrell hasn’t exactly taken on that challenge with her latest work of fiction, she’s done something equally remarkable. Hamnet is a wholly original, fully engrossing reimagining of Shakespeare’s little-explored home life with barely a flubbed line, misplaced stage prop or tedious soliloquy in sight.

The historical novel takes place in Stratford-upon-Avon mostly in 1596, the year that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at age 11. Perhaps surprisingly, its story doesn’t focus on the famous bard — who is unceremoniously referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband” throughout the book — nor his work. Instead it centers on his wife, Agnes, and their three children. More specifically, it briefly traces Shakespeare’s youth, courtship, Agnes’ pregnancy and their shotgun marriage before narrowing in on the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death and the long-lasting effect it had on the family.

As with many books that feature a tragedy, Hamnet falls neatly into two parts: before Hamnet’s death and after it. Within that structure, there’s also a clear division between narrative threads. There are the chapters devoted to Shakespeare’s coming-of-age — his struggling to cope under the reign of an abusive, drunkard grandfather; his early career as a teacher; and his years in London that take place mostly offstage.

Then there is everything having to do with Agnes, which brings me to the reason to rush out and pick this book up immediately (or in this age of pandemic, order it online). Forget Shakespeare and his award-winning repertoire. He’s got a big enough fan club as it is.

Instead, set your gaze on the woman-cum-earth goddess who is undoubtedly his better half. Agnes is a character for the ages — enigmatic, fully formed and nearly literally bewitching to behold in every scene she’s in. When O’Farrell writes that Agnes is “strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad,” that she “wanders the back roads and forest at will, unaccompanied, collecting plants to make dubious potions,” and is “said to be too wild for any man” by way of introduction, it’s clear we’re in for some good old-fashioned, female-forward storytelling.

Agnes’ slice of the narrative picks up steam, and heft, when she evolves past the barefoot, head-in-the-clouds wood nymph and into a doting mother. Though she never fully outgrows her flakiness nor her witchy ways — in fact, she becomes a type of healer for the village, much to her cantankerous stepmother’s and, later, oldest daughter’s chagrin — it’s both amusing and a treat to witness her deflect her husband’s “sullen … irritable, tetchy” moods and manage her kids’ needs like a pro, all while maintaining her independence.

But lest I paint too rosy a picture, Hamnet is first and foremost a novel about profound grief — the loss of a child and the inevitable ripping apart of those left behind. After her son’s passing, for example, Agnes is “someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognize it. She is unmoored, at a loss … small things undo her. Nothing is certain anymore.” Though Hamnet dies of the bubonic plague, the fear of contagion, closing of businesses and theaters, gruesome deathbed scene and rapid funeral are probably not too far off base from what some COVID-stricken families might be going through today.

Also poignant is the depiction of Agnes and Shakespeare’s passionate yet often strained marriage, especially after he opts to spend more time in London after Hamnet’s death to pursue his career. To him, it’s easier to bury himself in work rather than deal with her depression, which “is like a dangerous current that, if he were to swim too close, might suck him in, plunge him under.”

Whether you are a Shakespeare scholar or someone who hated reading Hamlet in high school English class, the appeal of Hamnet is multifold. Not only does it demonstrate O’Farrell’s gift for capturing the human spirit both in the throes of love and under duress, but it also proves yet again that there is still more to be said about the legendary English playwright.

By Maggie O’Farrell
(320 pages; $26.95)

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 19, 2020)

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