A Novel of the Plague
By Maggie O’Farrell

“Hamnet” is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once extremely famous and profoundly obscure.

Countless scholars have combed through Elizabethan England’s parish and court records looking for traces of William Shakespeare. But what we know for sure, if set down unvarnished by learned and often fascinating speculation, would barely make a slender monograph. As William Styron once wrote, the historical novelist works best when fed on short rations. The rations at Maggie O’Farrell’s disposal are scant but tasty, just the kind of morsels to nourish an empathetic imagination.

We know, for instance, that at the age of 18, Shakespeare married a woman named Anne or Agnes Hathaway, who was 26 and three months pregnant. (That condition wasn’t unusual for the time: Studies of marriage and baptism records reveal that as many as one-third of brides went to the altar pregnant.) Hathaway was the orphaned daughter of a farmer near Stratford-upon-Avon who had bequeathed her a dowry. This status gave her more latitude than many women of her time, who relied on paternal permission in choosing a mate.

Shakespeare was a grammar school graduate, the eldest son of a glove maker in declining fortune. His father had once been the equivalent of Stratford’s mayor, but by the time his son was 18, he had fallen into debt, disrepute and legal opprobrium.

For centuries, Shakespeare’s male biographers twisted these meager facts into a misogynistic scenario: An aging spinster entraps a callow youth and a loveless, mostly long-distance, marriage ensues. In 2007, in her convincing corrective, “Shakespeare’s Wife,” Germaine Greer placed these accounts in the long history of male scholarship’s diminishment of women — especially wives — in the lives of male artists and intellectuals going back to the ancient Greeks. O’Farrell has cited Greer’s work as an influence on her thinking.

In “Hamnet,” Shakespeare’s marriage is complicated and troubled, yet brimming with love and passion. Hathaway is imagined as a free-spirited young woman, close to the natural world and uncannily intuitive. She attracts the ardor of a repressed, restless teenager still in search of his life’s purpose. In this telling, Will, with his disgraced father and uncertain prospects, is no catch; it is Agnes, given her degree of social and financial independence, who is seen as making the poorer match with this “feckless, tradeless boy.”

A few more facts from the historical record: The child whose imminent arrival likely forced the timing of the Shakespeares’ November wedding was born six months later, a girl named Susanna. Two years on, the couple had twins: Judith and Hamnet. In 1596, Hamnet, just 11 years old, died of plague. By then William Shakespeare was an established playwright, living in London but providing amply for his family, amassing Stratford property and returning home for visits.

He is not at home, however, as O’Farrell’s novel opens on a moment of domestic tension. The boy, Hamnet, is in frantic search of help. His twin sister has suddenly fallen ill. We feel his anxiety rise as he fails to find the adults — particularly his mother — who might know what to do.

Here, right at the start, O’Farrell plants her flag. This novel will be about grief: how we experience it, how we respond to it, what it costs and whom it damages. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns,” she writes. “This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. … It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.” The mother is a mile away from home, tending to her beehives. Her son’s building panic is juxtaposed beautifully with a serene description of her gentle labors. Would her presence have saved her child from plague? Probably not. But grief’s equations are not figured rationally.

O’Farrell knows this. Her breathtaking memoir, “I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death,” details the disturbing instances in her own life when the angel of death came close enough to let her feel the beat of wing feathers disturb the air. And as the mother of a child born with a suite of life-threatening illnesses, she is on intimate terms with the dread, grief and guilt engendered by a suffering offspring.

This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art — it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays — and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself, does it.

Consider this description of Judith falling ill: “She cannot comprehend what has happened to this day. One moment, she and Hamnet were pulling bits of thread for the cat’s new kittens … and then she had suddenly felt a weakness in her arms, an ache in her back, a prickling in her throat. … Now she is on this bed and she has no idea how she got here.” O’Farrell, in her memoir, has written vividly of how, at age 8, she contracted encephalitis, almost died and was bedridden for more than a year. When Judith lies watching the walls “bulging inwards, then flexing back” as the bedposts “writhe and twist like serpents,” it is the precise and graphic description of high-fevered hallucinations recalled by someone who has experienced them.

At times, “Hamnet” brought to mind an earlier novel I admire, Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife” (1999), which centers its narrative on the young bride of Melville’s whaling captain — a woman barely mentioned in “Moby-Dick.” At the time, Naslund recalled the pressure of writing into the space occupied by such a classic: “You don’t send a minnow out after ‘Moby-Dick.’” Nor do you go after the private life of the Bard of Avon with a casual regard for English prose. O’Farrell, Irish-born, schooled in Scotland and Wales, and shaped by a childhood steeped in story and school days that always began with song, has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world.

She is deft, too, at keeping her research subordinated to the story. We’re not force-marched through a manual on 16th-century glove-making techniques or an exegesis of illegal practices in the Tudor wool trade. But we can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed, and we can see how the pale London sun “reaches down, like ladders, through the narrow gaps in buildings to illuminate the rain glazed street.”

At the center of the novel is a question: Why did Shakespeare title his most famous play for the son who had died several years earlier? (Hamlet and Hamnet are used interchangeably in parish records of the time. They were, essentially, the same name.)

The book builds toward an intriguing speculation, which I will not reveal here. As it unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.

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