What dreams may come: ‘Hamnet’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
Shakespeare’s son succumbs to plague as Maggie O’Farrell conjures Elizabethan England

At the age of 11, sometime in August of 1596, Hamnet Shakespeare died in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the only son of William Shakespeare and Anne or Agnes Hathaway. How did he die? We don’t know for sure but Irish-born writer Maggie O’Farrell thinks it might have been the bubonic plague. It’s a guess with an eerie significance given the current pandemic. O’Farrell can’t have known when she wrote her latest novel, her eighth, how germane and discomforting her speculation would be at the moment of publication, but there’s no doubt Hamnet (Tinder Press) now has a morbid poignancy as well as a fascination it would not otherwise have had.

The novel is interesting in itself, however, quite apart from its coincidental relevance to the great disaster of the new coronavirus. Hamnet is a historical fiction about grief and family ties and the lives of women in late 16th-century rural England. But it also has a background of fantasy and magic that charms and seduces and diverts.

At the early age of 18, early even by the standards of 1582, William Shakespeare married Agnes Hathaway, a woman from the nearby village of Shottery. There is some debate about her name because in one document from the period she is referred to as Anne and in another she is Agnes. O’Farrell, however, prefers the latter. In any case, she was 26 years old when she married and she bore her husband three children in a little under two years. First Susanna, and then the twins Judith and Hamnet.

William, it is supposed, left his family in Stratford not long after the birth of the twins to pursue his career in the theatres of London, because we know that a mere 10 years later he was an established playwright and actor. How did his family manage without him? What kind of woman was Agnes and how did she adapt to her husband’s absence? What was it like for her coping with the death of her son? And how did she feel, many years later, when her husband wrote a play called Hamlet, with its poetic fixation on mortality and the bond between father and son?

The early sections of Hamnet are very atmospheric. O’Farrell gathers up everyday details about life in a small town in Elizabethan England and puts them together as if setting a theatrical stage complete with dramatic lighting effects. A boy comes down a flight of stairs in his grandfather’s house:

It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light. The son glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow, set into the plaster.

This kind of immersive scene-setting is what O’Farrell did so well in her 2013 book, Instructions for a Heatwave, where she evoked the mood of the 1970s heatwaves in London. Here, we have the delightful sense that a velvet curtain has swept up, revealing a comprehensively imagined world of potential dramas.

And O’Farrell gives this scene, her introduction of the boy who will cause so much heartache, a compelling air of desolation and remoteness. Nobody seems to be around except Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, who has come down with a sore throat and mystery fever. Where is everyone? Who will take charge? The first chapter ends on an ominous note of abandonment: “He pauses, waiting for an answer, but there is nothing: only silence.” The muffled echo of Hamlet’s own last lines and the feeling of imminent disaster make for a seductive opening.

The figure of Hamnet has inspired much poetic conjecture over the years. Most memorably, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus argue that Shakespeare must have thought of himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and Hamlet as his own dead son. Stephen unfolds this theory in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses, conjuring for his audience a performance of the play in which Shakespeare himself plays the ghost:

A player comes on under the shadow, made up in the castoff mail of a court buck, a wellset man with a bass voice. It is the ghost, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. He speaks the words to Burbage, the young player who stands before him beyond the rack of cerecloth calling him by a name:


Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit


bidding him list. To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live forever.

It’s one of the most engrossing episodes in the book because Stephen lays on the detail so thick. “Local colour,” he says to himself. “Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.” And it’s the local colour that most attracts the reader in O’Farrell’s portrait: the griddle cakes and the rundown brewhouse, the thatched eves and the Candlemas Fair.

And yet Hamnet is not really about Hamnet. The central figure is Agnes. O’Farrell is writing in the tradition of Germaine Greer’s revisionist biography Shakespeare’s Wife (2007), which argues that Agnes has been unfairly ignored or ridiculed for much of the past 300 years. Greer calls on writers to invent a different kind of wife: an equal partner in the marriage and a powerful presence in Shakespeare’s poetic imagination.

On some questions, O’Farrell agrees with Greer. She, too, thinks Agnes was not abandoned by her husband but sent him off so she could run the household in her own way. On other questions, however, O’Farrell has very different ideas. Whereas Greer imagined Agnes as a literate, business-minded woman who made her own money through knitting and brewing, O’Farrell proposes a far more romantic heroine, though she is no less independent. Her Agnes is a kind of dream-world witch, the daughter of a gypsy or sorceress or nobody knows what. She’s like a character from a Pre-Raphaelite romance or a ballad by Sir Walter Scott, with psychic powers and prophetical dreams.

Before being wooed by the young Shakespeare, she lived near the edge of the forest. When Shakespeare – who is never, or rarely, mentioned by name but always referred to as husband or father or son – first sees her, she is hunting along the tree line with a kestrel. Even after their marriage she periodically returns to the forest, compelled to cross and recross the borders that others in the town fear. Through Agnes we experience Stratford as a place on the margins of the modern world, rubbing against a realm of forest sprites and wood-dwellers and ancient dark powers.

Agnes’s own special powers are healing ones. She can divine what the body needs or wants or is overflowing with, and is expert in the medicinal properties of plants. And O’Farrell ornaments the story with rhapsodic catalogues of herbs and treatments. At times it recalls – albeit distantly – the lush excesses of Shakespeare himself in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that fantasy of love and marriage and forest magic:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.

And yet, et in Arcadia ego. All her rare knowledge does not give Agnes the power to save her son. After Hamnet’s death, Agnes loses her connection to the mythical world of Merrie Olde England, and, in her grief, she becomes a recognisably modern character, much as Hamlet is himself, in mourning for his father.

The plot is a bit thin when compared to O’Farrell’s previous page-turners, but Hamnet is nonetheless an engrossing bit of commercial literary fiction. The town of Stratford and its surrounding farms are capably realised. And O’Farrell’s confident manipulation of time, skipping back and forward across the decades, gives an oneiric fluid quality to this imaginative portrait of the Shakespeare household.

And then there are those inventions that seem to touch uncannily on our own contemporary situation. In a long chapter in the middle of the book, O’Farrell traces how fleas infected with the plague might have reached Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596 from Venice. A boy petting a cat. A man sleeping in another man’s hammock. A sea voyage. The delivery of some glass beads packed in old rags. A brother and sister embracing. The plausible banality of these encounters resonates profoundly in a time of lockdowns, social distancing and endless hand-washing.

It’s a reminder – as if we needed it – that our vulnerability to vector-borne diseases is no new thing.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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