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Review: Shakespeare’s son died of plague, inspiring “Hamlet” — and a new novel about grief

Maggie O'Farrell's most recent novel, “Hamnet," is based on the death of Shakespeare's son.
(Knopf / Murdo MacLeod )

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Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth novel, “Hamnet,” is nominally a work of historical fiction. But its core subject is the kind of unchecked, ravaging despair that follows the death of a child. The author, whose memoir “I Am, I Am, I Am” covered the near-death experiences of herself and her ailing daughter, understands the parental terror of a child’s suffering.

After Hamnet dies, his twin sister Judith asks, “Will he never come back?” It is then that her mother, Agnes, first sobs, finding “she can bear anything except her child’s pain. She can bear separation, sickness, blows, birth, deprivation, hunger, unfairness, seclusions but not this: her child, looking down at her dead twin. Her child, sobbing for her lost brother. Her child, racked with grief.” There’s the rub, as William Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet.” A parent who is not alone in grief must also bear the grief of her family.

About that family, whose surname we never learn: a brief introductory explanation reminds us that Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, lost a son named Hamnet to the bubonic plague. Elizabethan naming conventions were loose: Anne/Agnes/Annis could all be names for the same person, as could Hamnet/Hamlet. Not long after losing his son, William wrote “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” a play about the depths of grief and the impossible quest for justice.

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Rather than tracking the Bard, O’Farrell has focused on Shakespeare’s wife and three children (Susannah, the eldest, and Hamnet and Judith, 11). The story begins with Hamnet discovering his twin sick and feverish; when he finds the house empty and seeks help, his grandfather John deals him a nasty blow, just as he had beaten the young Will. Of course we don’t know that. So little is known about the real-life Shakespeare and his family that O’Farrell’s creative license is near-infinite.

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As Hamnet races to find an adult, we meet the petulant Susannah, his work-worn grandmother Mary, his stolid uncle Bartholomew and many other Stratford characters. His mother, Agnes, is drawn most finely, out in the meadows checking her bee skeps, woven of hemp. Although later we’ll have more scenes of Agnes and various herbs and potions, it’s here that we “see” her for the first time — and we will never forget how she guides her tiny buzzing workers “gently, ever so gently.”

Her own mother long dead, Agnes defied her sour stepmother, Joan, by falling in love with the young man (tiny hoop dangling from his ear, as in famous etchings) who had been hired to tutor her younger brothers in order to work off his family’s debt to the Hathaways. Never has there been a more passionate scene of youthful sex in an apple storage room.

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O’Farrell’s novel isn’t only about grief — or not any more than “Hamlet” is. The novelist calls our attention to the world around her characters, the sensual, sensory world available to us all (not just Elizabethans) but so often glossed over as we go about mundane tasks. There are lovely metaphors and similes — tears “like heavy pearls,” death as a snow-filled landscape — but also passages rich in detail: “Apples ... He brings one up to his face and inhales the scent, sharp, specific, acidic. It brings a slew of distant images to mind: fallen leaves, sodden grass, woodsmoke, his mother’s kitchen.”

Untethered by dates or events, the story loses historicity and gains immediacy, so that even as we know Hamnet will die, we suffer his passing as a shock: “Her son’s body is in a place of torture, of hell. It writhes, it twists, it buckles and strains.” He dies fast and in agony while his twin heals, catching Agnes emotionally unaware. Although she delays the preparation of her son’s small form for as long as possible, in defiance of authorities, her husband does not return from London until Hamnet is shrouded.

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Naturally — as naturally as the bees leave the skep when smoked out — death threatens to break the bond between father and mother, husband and wife. Agnes looks at her husband as they leave the graveyard, “and it is as if she has never seen him before, so odd and distorted and old do his features seem.” He cannot cry, instead pacing their second floor “like someone trying to find their way back to a place for which they have lost the map.”

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O’Farrell moves through the family’s pain like a master of signs and signals. Agnes and her daughter Judith make candles, discussing the word “for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin,” and “Judith watches the liquid slide off the ends of the wicks, into the bowl below. ‘Maybe there isn’t one,’ she suggests. ‘Maybe not,’ says her mother.” The melting, shape-shifting tallow echoes the family’s slow move from a season of grief into a season of change.

But change does not always mean healing. In London, the father busies himself with his writing and company of actors, for “the magnitude, the depth of his wife’s grief for their son exerts a fatal pull. . . . he must hold himself separate in order to survive.” So much comes between them, and perhaps it is no spoiler to say that they are brought back together — for a moment? For years? — by a performance of “Hamlet” that Agnes witnesses, by an actor directed by her husband to behave just as her Hamnet did. “It is too much: she isn’t sure how to bear it, how to explain this to herself.” As she watches, Agnes realizes that her husband “has taken his son’s death and made it his own.”

In “Hamnet,” art imitates life not to co-opt reality, but to help us bear it.

Hamnet
Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf: 320 pages, $27


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