When Irish-born author Maggie O’Farrell wrote HAMNET: A Novel of the Plague, set in the late 1500s, she had no idea that a future Pandemic would soon rattle the globe. HAMNET was her eighth novel, but she’d been wanting to write a story involving Shakespeare’s son for a long time, ever since learning of his existence in high school. The book’s publication in late March of last year happened to coincide with the covid shut-down.
All the novels I’ve read/devoured/lost myself in during the Pandemic were a powerful antidote to the news that battered me every day, culminating in the siege of our U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Five people died. Protesters-turned-domestic terrorists beat some of the outnumbered Capitol Police officers with fire extinguishers, flagpoles, hockey sticks, and fists. The Insurrection could have turned out far worse if the mob had gotten their hands on Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi and others. Some in the crowd were out for blood. Why? Because they believed the Big Lie.
I love a great novel, but I loathe a Big Lie. Here’s the difference. A great novel is a make-believe story that connects with readers because it sheds fresh light on the human condition. A great novel can shake us to our core or lift us up, even when bad things happen to good characters. The story’s big reveal can be earth shattering or quietly profound, but it sneaks up on us and surprises.
A Big Lie also sneaks up on us and surprises. A Big Lie is somebody repeating the same falsehood over and over again to get something they want very, very badly. I’m reminded of Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme. Madoff swindled thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Year after year, he told them he was so good at investing that, unlike his peers, he never lost money and could guarantee his investors consistent returns. He ‘proved’ this by sending them make-believe financial statements and real checks when they asked for pay-outs. In fact, those pay-outs were put together from money he got from Peter to pay Paul. And when new investors like Peter dried up because of the 2008 financial crisis, his Big Lie was exposed. There were no more pay-outs. Madoff was arrested. But up until then, he got what he wanted: a reputation as a kind of magician-money manager and extraordinary wealth for himself and his family.
But let me return to the novel HAMNET. I want to shout about it because it’s that good.
Hamnet is a make-believe story based on the few facts that exist about the life of William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest dramatist the world has ever known. O’Farrell used three of the known facts to craft her story:
- A couple living in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in the 1580s had three children: Susanna and the twins, Hamnet and Judith
- The boy Hamnet died in 1596, age eleven
- About four years later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet. (In Shakepeare’s day, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable.)
This is a novel about family, love, and grief, but it’s also about possibility. The possibility of grief transporting a person to greater purpose. The person may never lose sight of the tragedy that inspired it, but by honoring the loved one in a way that touches the lives of others, he may begin to heal.
Eleven year-old Hamnet is searching for his mother; then, when he can’t find her, his older sister, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles. His father isn’t home. He works in London, only returning for visits. Hamnet is a sweet boy, tall for his age and smart but easily distracted. He locates his grandfather, but the ill-tempered man–a once prosperous glove maker and former mayor who has run up debts and town resentments–throws a cup at his head, cutting him, and Hamnet is forced to flee before he can reveal that his twin sister Judith is ill.
The story circles back fifteen years to the day his father met his mother, and how they came to marry. Neither family, except for the bride and groom, is particularly happy about the marriage, but she is three months pregnant (not uncommon at the time.)
A young man, 18, is in a farmhouse tutoring two young boys in Latin when he spies a young woman at the edge of the forest with a falcon perched on her hand. His father the glove maker has sent him there to satisfy a debt to the farmer, who has died, leaving behind a widow and many children. Agnes, 26, is the child of the farmer’s much loved first wife, who died giving birth to their third child. The farmer’s second wife resents Agnes, who is everything she is not.
The focal point of the book is Agnes and her relationship with her family and her husband. (In town records, Shakespeare’s wife is named as Anne Hathaway, but it’s also a fact that her father called her Agnes in his will and bequeathed her a dowry.) In the novel, Agnes is a herbalist and a bee keeper; a heeler and an intuitive. When she meets the young tutor, she is lonely for human contact. She is isolated on the farm and by her stepmother, who doesn’t want much to do with her.
In interviews, O’Farrell has said she had two main inspirations for the novel. One was Hamnet. The second was Agnes/Anne: very little is known about her, too, apart from the fact she was older than her husband. And yet, history has not been kind to her, in part because she stayed in Stratford with her children while Shakespeare lived in London in pursuit of his career, returning home for visits. Biographers, scholars, screenwriters and other novelists have speculated she was a cradle-snatcher, a nymphomaniac, and a shrew.
“We’re fed this idea that she was an ignorant peasant strumpet who tricked this genius boy into marriage, and he hated her and had to run away to London to escape. Where is this coming from? Why are people so wedded to the idea of the fancy-free male artist that they have to put her down?” Maggie O’Farrell, speaking with The Guardian in September 2020
Instead, O’Farrell makes the intuitive leap that Shakespeare became who he was because his wife encouraged him to go to London. Agnes knows he’s miserable working for his father, and she senses he needs to find his way to something else.
[She has] A sense, too, that something was tethering him, holding him back; there was a tie somewhere, a bond that needs to be loosened or broken, before he could fully inhabit this landscape, before he could take command. –a passage from HAMNET
This isn’t such a leap. Shakespeare, after he became a successful playwright, bought his family the second most expensive house in Stratford. And it is to there he returned in his retirement.
The novel is written in modern language but there’s a beautiful poetic rhythm to the prose. And O’Farrell plunges us into the sights, smells and endless domestic chores of life in Elizabethan England. Twenty-first century politics aside, I’m very glad not to have lived in the 16th century.
The cause of Hamnet’s death is not recorded, but he died in high summer during a plague year. Which brings us back to the subject of grief. O’Farrell herself is a mother of three. She knows that though nothing is recorded of Hamnet, apart from the dates of his birth and death, his parents surely suffered his loss.
She thinks, this cannot happen, it cannot, how will we live, what will we do, what will I tell people, how can we continue, what should I have done, where is my husband, what will he say, how could I have saved him, why didn’t I save him, why didn’t I realize it was he who was in danger? And then, the focus narrows, and she thinks: He is dead. He is dead. He is dead. –a passage from HAMNET
In this country, the Pandemic has killed more than 400,000 people, at least as many as we lost during World War II. Without the Big Lie, many Americans would not have been wasting their grief over a “stolen election.” Democracy dodged a bullet on January 6th, but gun smoke still lingers in the air. And grief. But shouldn’t our collective grief now turn to those we’ve lost, with hope that we can wipe out this Pandemic, put people back to work, and hug–without fear–our old friends and new acquaintances?