In Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking 1929 essay “What if Shakespeare Had a Sister?”, she argues that conditions for women during the Elizabethan age—lack of schooling, forced marriage, culturally condoned beatings, pregnancy, and prohibition from the stage—would have frustrated her genius; “any woman born with a great gift in the 16th century would certainly have gone crazed,” she concludes. “When one reads of a witch being ducked, or a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of … some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor.” Following in Woolf’s footsteps, feminist author Germaine Greer (1939- ) wrote Shakespeare’s Wife in 2007, an historical biography based on extensive research that reclaims the woman we know as Anne Hathaway from myth, and proves her to be strong and accomplished in her own right, a worthy partner to the world’s greatest poet.
Agnes, the protagonist of Irish author Maggie O’Farrell’s stunning 2020 novel Hamnet: a Novel of the Plague, is just such a woman as these authors imagined. “O’Farrell re-imagines Agnes as a powerful woman with exceptional gifts, and this visionary healer captivates the local glover’s wayward son, who will one day become the world’s greatest dramatist” (Dawn M. Sherratt-Bado in The Literary Review). The woman we know as Anne Hathaway was called Agnes in her father’s will, and O’Farrell chooses to use this name in part to redefine the shadowy image we carry with us from high school. O’Farrell’s Agnes is wild, “born of the forest,” keeps a pet kestrel falcon, collects and grows healing herbs, and possesses the gift of foreknowledge. Stratford residents do, in fact, view her as a witch. But this strong, creative Agnes only “goes crazed” when she loses her only son to the plague.
Historical facts about William Shakespeare (1564-1616)—whose birthday we just celebrated on April 26—are notoriously scant. We know that he and his wife had three children, the younger two being twins, and that his family continued to live in Stratford-Upon-Avon while he achieved dramatic success in London, about 30 miles away. We also know that their only son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at age 11—but the cause of his death is not known. From these few facts, in a tour de force of imagination, O’Farrell creates a world of wonder so rich, so pulsing with life, and so emotionally convincing as to feel like truth.
The timeline of the text shifts back and forth between 1596, the year Hamnet dies, and the 1580s, tracing the courtship and marriage of Agnes and William. From Shakespeare’s youth, she follows his deep and passionate early marriage, imagines why he left home to pursue a dramatic career in London, proposes a logical cause for Hamnet’s death of the bubonic plague that swept Europe and Asia from the 14th through the 16th centuries, and conveys the profound grief that struck both parents and led to Shakespeare’s writing his greatest play—named for his dead son—a mere four years later. An epigraph quotes Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World (2004), to remind us that “Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.”
When William—who is never named in the novel but instead referred to as “the Latin tutor,” a “wayward, feckless boy,” and later as “the husband” or “the father”—first meets Agnes in the forest exercising her kestrel, he little suspects that she is the deceased farmer’s eldest daughter, about whom “it is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad… She is said to be too wild for any man.” His mother describes her as “this creature…this elf, this sorceress, this forest sprite…[who] bewitched and ensnared her boy.” They are instantly, magnetically drawn to one another; he is intrigued by her mystery, eccentricity, and beauty. Agnes’s intuitive foresight divines “layers and strata” within him, “like a landscape…big and complex.” She—who was left a handsome dowry by her deceased father—chooses to marry him for love, unheard of among the middle and upper classes of that time. When Agnes’s stepmother forbids the match, they contrive to get her pregnant so the marriage will become unavoidable.
Soon after giving birth to their first child, Susannah, Agnes becomes aware of her husband’s misery, trapped in the small apartment attached to his parents’ house on Henley Street. It is she who encourages, even engineers his relocation in London to expand the market for his father’s gloves, leading to an ingenious explanation of how Shakespeare’s celebrated career came about. Selling gloves to various vendors, he is awarded a contract to make gloves for the players at a theatre: “long gauntlets for fighting, fine gloves with jewels and beads for kings and queens,” and so he falls in love again—this time with the theatre.
The death of their son—which Agnes must face alone—sorely tests their marriage. Yet there is joy on every page of this extraordinary novel—variously described by critics as luminous, shimmering, and incandescent. Through lush descriptions and vivid details, O’Farrell evokes the noise, smells, squalor, and beauty of life in Elizabethan England. The scene in which Agnes visits London and finds the solitary, austere chamber where her husband exercises his gift creates an image that any serious writer might recognize. “Under the light of the window there is a square table with a chair tucked beneath. The desk-box on top of it is open and she can see a pen-case, inkwell and pen-knife. A collection of quills is lined up next to three or four table-books, bound by his hand… There is a single sheet of paper in front of the chair.”
Perhaps the most brilliant chapter follows a plague-carrying flea from a performing monkey in Alexandria (Egypt), to a ship’s cats and rats, to a Venetian glassmaker, to the millefiori beads ordered by a Stratford seamstress, to her neighbor’s child opening the box—who just happens to be Judith Shakespeare. The rapid, global spread of an animal-borne pestilence is eerily relevant—although O’Farrell wrote the book well before the current pandemic arrived.
Winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the fiction prize at the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Awards, Hamnet has been included on 15 lists of the Best Books of 2020. I often judge a book by its ending, and this one did not disappoint. O’Farrell recreates a performance of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre itself, which leads to a satisfying and poignant conclusion that highlights the transformative and healing power of art.