Life and Death in the Margins: Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Historical fiction can be dicey when it deals with known figures. The author is all too often caught up in the persona of the figure in question, making their writing feel contrived since it doesn’t actually grapple with the person at all. It is refreshing, then, that Maggie O’Farrell’s sterling Hamnet steadfastly refuses to indulge in its portrayal of William Shakespeare and the personal origins of what is perhaps his greatest play: Hamlet.

In truth, Shakespeare only plays a supporting role in O’Farrell’s story, which instead focuses on his wife. Traditionally known as Anne Hathaway but here referred to as Agnes (as she was named in her father’s will), Hamnet is much more about her than it is about her famous husband. The reader is very aware of who her husband is, but he is never named in the text. In fact, Hamnet is much more about his absence than it is about him. Imagine Little Women‘s March sisters longing for their distant father and you’re about there, except instead of fighting in the Civil War, Shakespeare is off pursuing his lofty ambitions in the London theatre world. Allowing the reader to see this famous man through the prism of the family he left behind does two key things: first, it allows the reader to see him from a fresh perspective; second, it humanizes him by tactfully knocking him off of the perch of fame. Instead, we see him as his family did: a restless, intelligent soul yearning to escape his abusive father’s shadow. They don’t think much of his work in the theatre or his life in London because they have no context for it.

This may seem like a lot of talk about a character I’ve admitted is only peripheral to the story here, but I think it’s important because O’Farrell herself used Shakespeare as an entry point to her novel. It was her fascination with his personal story and its many unknowns that led her to write this book. I think it’s fair to say that many readers will find the premise of this novel intriguing specifically because of its connection to Shakespeare.

As such, the reader goes into Hamnet knowing how the story will end, because we know that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the years after his son Hamnet’s untimely death. And we know that in the wake of this loss Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest, most tragic plays. But history did not record the how or why of young Hamnet’s demise, and there are many gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare himself and especially of his family, which allows O’Farrell to unleash her considerable powers as a writer to imagine how they may have lived and died.

Reading a book that heavily deals with the Black Plague in 2020, a year of lockdowns as a result of a global pandemic, may seem like an uncomfortable proposition–indeed, it is alarming how relatable moments like London’s theatres closing due to Plague have become. But anyone wary of “too much reality” can be assured that there is enough historical distance to satisfy at least this anxious reader. Still, trigger warnings are in place.

Moving effortlessly back and forth in time, Hamnet gives the indelible Agnes her own place in history. An independent woman in a time when such a thing was frowned upon, she is not a character you will soon forget. The back and forth structure allows us to get to know Agnes as a young woman and see how she forged a life and a family with a husband longing for a purpose (though unsure what that purpose may be), which raises the stakes for the “present” moment where she is fighting to keep her children alive while that husband is absent. At no point does the story feel forced, contrived, or melodramatic.

I had never read a book by O’Farrell before, and I will be eagerly seeking out more of her work. Her impeccable writing is sumptuous. The story is captivating and timeless. It’s also a truly heartbreaking examination of grief.

I am perhaps unusually attuned to the idea of spotlighting people who existed on the margins of popular history–figures whose stories are most commonly told through the more famous (usually male) people in their orbit. It’s why I loved The Five by Hallie Rubenhold so much. In a way, it feels like O’Farrell is giving Agnes, Judith, Susanna, and Hamnet the rights to their own stories again–and, in so doing, she is allowing you to see Shakespeare as a man and not a godlike celebrity, which also gives him his story back in a resonant and meaningful way. I appreciate this so much.

Hamnet is a quietly staggering work of great urgency that will not leave you anytime soon. I am so glad that I read it.


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