O'Farrell, Maggie

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Oct-19-2020
  • Last revised: Oct-19-2020


The underlying premise of this engrossing book is the well documented historical fact that William Shakespeare had a young son who died at age 11, relatively early in his father’s theatrical career. The son, named Hamnet, was one of twins born to William and Agnes Hathaway (O’Farrell refers to her as Agnes rather than Ann based on some public records) in 1585. The cause of death is unknown, but O’Farrell imagines that he fell victim to the plague. She weaves an electric narrative that begins with Shakespeare as an educated young man who is a teacher and private tutor to children in Stratford-on-Avon. His relationship with his glove maker father who has fallen on hard times is at a near break point. In the past, Shakespeare’s father had been an important town official but because of a mixture of misguided business deals and bad behaviors, he has become an object of public scorn. His rage at this reversal of fortune is directed at his bookish son. But then, Shakespeare meets Agnes Hathaway. She is 8 years older than William but entrances him with her unconventional personality and her exotic skillset including bee keeping and an uncanny ability to heal people with herbal remedies. They marry and have their first child 6 months later to be followed in short order by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

Agnes recognizes William’s unique potential and supports his choice to leave his family and head off to London to make his name in the theater world. Shakespeare rarely returns home to Stratford, and we only learn of his growing success indirectly. Agnes is forced to raise her children as a single parent and has to deal with her overwhelming grief when Hamnet dies. As she mourns the loss of her son, she is overcome with doubt about the fidelity of her absent husband, and her faith in their marriage is threatened. Ultimately, Agnes is given a playbill featuring the production of a new play written by her husband and she sets off on a trip to London to confront him on his own turf. She arrives uninvited at the Globe Theater in time to witness a performance of the play in which her husband has been able to channel his own grief at the loss of his son into one of the enduring literary works in the Western canon.


I first became aware of this book in a New York Times article that appeared in the early stages of the COVID 19 pandemic shutdown. It was recommended as a worthwhile book to read in quarantine. I had never heard of Maggie O’Farrell but the two sentence summary captured the book and author perfectly. I do not think O’Farrell is a prophetess. But she is nothing if not attuned to our times and circumstances. Assuming she was writing this novel well before coronavirus escaped the food market in Wuhan, the way she frames Hamnet’s death in a setting of bubonic plague-on-Avon is inspired. Her story captures the explosive fear that envelopes the town as the plague spreads -- you can feel the wind in your face as the townspeople slam the door shut in the face of anyone suspected or proven to be infected. The story is written in the present tense which heightens the sense of immediacy of the events as they unfold for William and his parents, Agnes and her family, and the people living in Stratford. O’Farrell’s prose feels Elizabethan – in the description of glove making, removing honey from a beehive, preparing shrouds for the dead child. As I read, I found myself looking up many more words than usual because the language itself has the power to transport you back in time.

But, while the choice of bubonic plague as the cause of death may be fortuitous for book clubs and book sales in the world we live in during the pandemic, I do not think it is the driving force in this book. The dominant theme is how we deal with grief from any cause. O’Farrell is not the first author to use the death of a child as a vehicle to explore the myriad consequences triggered by the loss of a loved one, especially for parents who lose a young son or daughter. The steady movement of the plot to the climactic scene in London makes Shakespeare’s response seem the more substantive. His literary genius has enabled him to channel his sadness at the loss of the son he adored into the creation of an authentic character in whom he could project all the hopes and dreams that he had for Hamnet.

Interestingly, O’Farrell never names Shakespeare throughout the novel, referring to him only in the third person. I can only speculate what O’Farrell means to convey with this literary device. I think she is acknowledging that it is the truly rare individual who can accomplish what Shakespeare was able to do in redirecting his grief from personal sadness into a timeless literary masterpiece. We are more like Agnes who must go through our day-to-day routine, try to find meaning in tragedy and the courage and strength to stay on our feet and continue to move forward. That is Agnes’ accomplishment -- that she can summon the will to travel to London to confront William, and by her action have the goodness of heart to realize that her husband shares her loss. She is able to appreciate the gift he has been given to transform his personal grief into a meaningful expression that the world can share. With this new found knowledge, her marriage will be reinvigorated and their mutual love will be reinforced. Agnes is the named character who occupies center stage as the story unfolds.

O’Farrell has written a truly beautiful book that brings to life the pain of loss and the capacity of men and women to endure. As we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic as individuals and communities, many have been forced to deal with unexpected pain, suffering and death. Hamnet is a book for our time. Physicians and all other health professionals are doing their best to support families and communities as they deal with untimely loss of loved ones. I only hope that it will not set the bar too high on expectations of how to transform grief into meaning. We are not going to be unnamed Shakespeares but we can hope to be named Agneses who can still find joy and meaning in our lived lives in the aftermath of the pandemic.  


Alfred Knopf



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