In August 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet dies of unknown causes at the age of 11, leaving behind him his twin sister Judith. A few years later, the Bard writes a play bearing his son’s name – a tragedy set in far-away Denmark about a young man who is constitutionally incapable of taking concrete political action. What does Hamlet have to do with Hamnet? What unrecorded domestic dramas might lie behind the work of this most famous of playwrights? These are the questions Maggie O’Farrell asks in her 2020 novel Hamnet.
The novel’s emotional centre is not Shakespeare himself – the playwright is in fact never named – but his wife, known in real life as Anne Hathaway and here called Agnes. Looked at objectively, Agnes’ life as portrayed by O’Farrell is, if not precisely a tragic one, at least not one you’d conventionally call happy: brought up by a resentful, abusive stepmother who fears and hates her gift for healing and love for the forest, she marries essentially the first person who is kind to her, who promptly acquires a lucrative career which takes him to London for much of his married life, leaving her to bring up his children. And yet. This isn’t a story about victimhood or the fashionable ennui of middle-class cishet couples; it’s a novel that explicitly valorises domesticity and the textures of ordinary everyday life.
I use the word “textures” advisedly; one of the ways Hamnet prioritises domesticity is by focusing closely on the sensory experience of living in sixteenth-century Stratford. The smell of raw wool in an attic. The vast silence of a pre-industrial forest. Frost by a graveside. This sensory detail is bolstered by the fine attention O’Farrell pays to her characters’ emotional reality; to take a random example:
“Partings are strange. It seems so simple: one minute ago, four, five, he was here, at her side; now, he is gone. She was with him; she is alone. She feels exposed, chill, peeled like an onion.”
This lyrical interest in the interiority of Agnes and her children is, deliberately, a far cry from the dramatic action of Shakespeare’s plays; we are further distanced from Shakespeare-as-famous-playwright by O’Farrell’s refusal to name him, and her use of the name “Agnes” instead of “Ann”. O’Farrell’s essential point is a feminist one: the prevailing cultural narrative about Shakespeare paints him as a genius, a man “not of an age but for all time!” (as Ben Jonson rather breathlessly put it); estranging him from that cultural narrative by placing him back into his historical and material context draws attention to the web of relationships in which he must have existed, the women and children in his life who are now all but forgotten. O’Farrell’s Agnes, with her uncanny gifts, is granted a presence as great as her husband’s – greater, even, within the novel’s world.
This can, of course, be situated within the feminist literary trend of drawing attention to how women are situated in relation to Western cultural touchstones: think, for instance, of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, or Angela Carter’s feminist fairytales. In that context Hamnet almost feels like a throwback to another age, when such rewritings were truly radical. It’s a lovely novel, and it well deserves the plaudits it’s received (among other things: the Women’s Prize for Fiction). But for genuine innovation, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere.