Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell

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I have just finished listening to this work of fiction on this, Valentine’s Day, a light snow starting then stopping, a teaser we’re told, for the main event to come later today: I am in an oddish mood. O’Farrell says in an author’s note at the end of the book that its genesis was her longtime idle speculation as to why Shakespeare never once mentioned the Black Plague or Pestilence in any of his plays or poems. Why is that, when it figured so largely in life at the time?

There is no record of the cause of his 11-year-old son’s death in 1596, but what if it was the plague that felled him? Would Shakespeare have refused to give any more ground to that invisible scourge on his page? And what of Hamnet/Hamlet, alternative spellings of the same name at the time? Did Shakespeare do in the play what any parent would wish to do: die in the place of his child? Hamlet the King, the father, is dead and Hamlet, the Prince, the son, lives at the beginning of the play. And what is the result in the end: tragedy all about.

But nearly all of this book has to do with O’Farrell’s bringing the wife, the mother, to life. She is Agnes, the name her father listed in his will, not Anne. Shakespeare himself is never referred to by name. Their son, their brother, the tutor, her husband, their father. O’Farrell spins a plausible narrative to answer the nagging questions we have about the scant information available. Why did Will go off to London without his family? Why did he live apart from them for so very long? Why did he leave the second best bed to his wife and all else to his elder daughter?

The book is most vivid when it takes on Agnes’s experience of losing her child, and the ongoing grief that follows. It is relentless. The language is relentless. And, speaking of the language, I don’t know when in the novel this started, but I noticed at about 8-1/2 hours into the 12-1/2 hours that there were so many things essentially said three times and once I had noticed it I couldn’t help but look for it. As an editor, I would have waved a caution flag against this, it took this reader out of the world of the book. Three adjectives are not better than one, especially when they would be shown as synonyms. Care should be used with one simile (is it original?), but a string of three of them is just about beyond the pale. So, this is my reservation about the writing in a book which is much-admired. I had to wait for it a long time. It’s a fascinating project.

2 comments on “Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell”

  1. Well, Teri. Hmmmmm. This book is on my “for later” shelf at the library but has yet to make it to the top of the list. (Admittedly, it is a long list.) Haven’t yet decided whether your review makes we want to move it to the top or take it off the list. I will be ruminating on this for awhile.

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    1. I came across a review of this book in the New York Review of Books, written by the Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt. (I think he may have taught a Shakespeare MOOC I took.) His comments were quite positive, and he didn’t say a word about O’Farrell’s writing style. So…I wanted you to know that he would want you to keep Hamnet on your reading list, to move it to the top, probably. He pointed out that O’Farrell imagined Agnes to be what was then referred to as a wisewoman, a woman with deep herbal knowledge she used to treat people’s ills, a woman who had an unexplainable knowledge of the world. I remember thinking that O’Farrell may have done this because of the many references to herbs and potions made in Shakespeare’s plays, which is something we discussed in that MOOC.

      Greenblatt says the O’Farrell acknowledges her vision of the Shakespeare marriage is indebted to Germaine Greer’s 2007 book, Shakespeare’s Wife, in which Agnes Hathaway is an impressive person who has been dismissed by misogynistic male historians (one of whom, he regrets to say, Greer considers Greenblatt to be). I think this may be part of Greenblatt’s treading carefully in his review, which is pure speculation on my part.

      As for the magnificent way O’Farrell connects the dots with the play, Hamlet, Greenblatt writes: “Did it actually happen this way? Almost certainly not. Was the moribund marriage saved? I doubt it. But I too am convinced that Shakespeare drew upon his grief and mourning to write the astonishing, transformative platy that bears his son’s name. With her touching fiction O’Farrell has not only painted a vivid portrait of the shadowy Agnes Hathaway Shakespeare but also found a way to suggest that Hamnet was William Shakespeare’s best piece of poetry.”

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