In Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell has placed the bit players of the Shakespeare story centre stage, while the dramatist himself is never even named. This is primarily a portrait of a woman and her three children.
In her foreword, O’Farrell explains that ever since she first heard Shakespeare’s only son mentioned at school more than three decades ago, she has wanted to write about him. Hamnet died at the age of 11, four years before Hamlet was written. The two names are interchangeable in Stratford records from the time, and the link made here between the two tragedies is persuasive.
Such an undertaking is an enormous challenge, but O’Farrell is passionately steeped in the period. This, her eighth novel, is, surprisingly, her first to have been nominated for the Women’s prize, while previous works have won the Somerset Maugham and Costa novel awards, and her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am was a bestseller.
The novel opens with the young Hamnet in the annexe of his grandparents’ house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, searching for help because his twin, Judith, is ill. At the sight of the lumps forming under her skin, “a cold fear rinses down through his chest, encasing his heart”. His mother, known throughout as Agnes – the name Hathaway’s father gave her in his will – is busy on her patch of land, where she grows herbs and keeps bees “in hemp-woven skeps, which hum with industrious and absorbed life”. William Shakespeare, referred to variously as “the son”, “the father”, “the tutor”, “the husband”, is away working, and Hamnet is left alone to deal with the threat of the plague.
We then wind back the clock to Agnes’s courtship by the young Shakespeare, who is Latin tutor to her family. So little is known about Shakespeare and Hathaway’s lives that O’Farrell is free to invent, and she creates something of a fairy tale in her recounting of Agnes’ early years. Her Agnes is a witchy woman of the forest, a quasi-mythical creature who has a way with potions and curses. Shakespeare is only 18 when 26-year-old Agnes becomes pregnant with their first child, Susanna; they marry and move to rooms beside the house and workshop of Shakespeare’s bully of a father, a thoroughly obnoxious glover.
The narrative swings between Hamnet’s short life with his sisters and his parents’ backstory. The utter fluency with which O’Farrell glides across years and decades, never lingering in one timeframe for long yet never confusing the reader, has always been one of her most remarkable achievements as a writer. Hamnet’s chapters, in which he observes the plague’s grip on his Judith, and its sudden, belated transfer to him, are gruesomely tense, whereas the novel’s occasional longueurs reside in Agnes’ story.
This kind of historical writing is a departure for O’Farrell, though sections of The Vanishing Act of Esmé Lennox take place in the 1930s. She is at times constrained by the paucity of the established facts; while her plots normally surge forward even as they swirl chronologically, there is a static quality to some of the beautifully lyrical but overlong descriptions of everyday Warwickshire life. In place of plot twists, she employs fanciful departures, such as a passage about how the plague travelled to Stratford via a glassmaker in Murano.
It seems O'Farrell can pretty much do anything on the page that she puts her mind to
Once the illness leaps from Judith to Hamnet in August 1596, the novel becomes a breathtakingly moving study of grief. The boy who “bounds through the meadow … like a hare, like a comet” is now dead, and O’Farrell’s portrait of maternal and sibling bereavement is so accurately expressed it’s almost too painful to read. Hamnet is, above all, a profound study of loss.
O’Farrell’s use of the third-person present tense brings an immediacy and modernity to her material, reminiscent of Hilary Mantel in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. The plants and scents of the time, the goat hides and aldermen, the whittawing and plague buboes all bring Elizabethan England quite startlingly to life, while pregnancy, childbirth, family life and sorrow are timelessly captured.
As with much contemporary retelling of Greek mythology from a woman’s perspective, this is an almost entirely female take on a familiar story, done with a characteristic lightness of touch and accessibility that achieves universality. At her best, O’Farrell is simply outstanding. Within pages, she can inhabit the mind of an owl, of a great playwright, of a dying boy, of those watching him. It seems she can pretty much do anything on the page that she puts her mind to. Immersive, at times shockingly intimate, and triumphantly brought to fruition, this is a work that ought to win prizes.
• Joanna Briscoe’s new novel, The Seduction, will be published in June. Hamnet is published by Tinder (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.