England, 1596: The Black Death creeps across the land. Hamnet is so masterfully written that it transports you back centuries from our own time of viral pandemic into another time of epidemic disease – the bubonic plague. A time of ever present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young alike.
Hamnet Shakespeare was the only son of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway and the fraternal twin of Judith Shakespeare. He died at the age of eleven. Maggie O’Farrell has taken the above bit of written history and has created a fictional family saga brimming with love, tragedy and compassion.
Hamnet, Anne Hathaway – renamed and retold.
O’Farrell’s Anne Hathaway has been renamed Agnes. This is Agnes’ story, despite the title. Agnes is a nonconformist woman challenged by the unpredictability of life. The plot alternates between Agnes’ youth, courtship and pregnancies and the time in 1596 when tragedy strikes the Shakespeare family. Starved for love as a child, after her mother’s death, Agnes makes friends with nature. Her closest companion is a trained hawk. O’Farrell gives her an ethereal quality. Agnes is a “Cinderella” in her nasty stepmother’s household. Shakespeare is an indentured Latin tutor in this same household. He is indentured to help settle a debt incurred by his errant father. These two abused misfits find something special in each other. Hamnet is among other things, a love story.
We meet Hamnet, a smart and easily distractible boy, who is desperately seeking help for his twin sister who has fallen ill. Agnes is off tending bees and can not be found. William is in London promoting his work. Only one twin will survive the plague.
Plagues, old and new: The bubonic plague and Covid-19
There is a passage in the story in which O’Farrell tracks how the plague reached Agnes’ children. Its significance is magnified in light of the current global Covid-19 pandemic. “For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596,” O’Farrell writes, “two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.” The unwitting conduits are a master glassmaker in Murano, who in a moment of inattention burns his hands while blowing glass beads, and a cabin boy on a merchant ship, who becomes enchanted with an African monkey in Alexandria and picks up a stowaway infected flea in his red neckerchief. O’Farrell charts the flea and its progeny’s death path, through cats, rats, midshipmen, officers, glassmaker, and into the boxes of glass beads, one of which Hamnet’s sister, Judith, excitedly unpacks when it is delivered to a Stratford seamstress who has been eagerly awaiting them for a client’s fancy gown. This passage in the book is ten pages long. It is difficult to understand the origin of a plague.
Poor Agnes is left to suffer the consequences. “There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be feed everyday and time runs only one way.”
Motherhood themes in Hamnet:
There is a theme of motherhood that runs throughout the book. Agnes’ feelings are timeless and heart wrenching, such as:
- “She like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, toward her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”
- “The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play.”
O’Farrell has created a unique story with scant background material to draw upon. She has brought Agnes and the children to life with her vivid imagination and meticulous writing. She has also left Shakespeare unnamed throughout the story.
Shakespeare’s Real Son – What’s the Hamlet Connection?
Some Shakespeare scholars speculate on the relationship between Hamnet and his father’s later play “Hamlet”. Most believe there is no connection. Speculation over Hamnet’s influence on Shakespeare’s work is not limited to “Hamlet”. If he wrote anything in response to his son’s death, he did so subtly. His major tragedies were written after Hamnet’s death. It is possible that his tragedies gained depth from the experience of his personal tragic loss.