Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet was inspired by Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 article in the New York Review of Books “Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet.” https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2004/10/21/the-death-of-hamnet-and-the-making-of-hamlet/ Greenblatt argues that the power of Shakespeare’s greatest play came in part from the grief that Shakespeare felt after the death of his son, Hamnet. O’Farrell tells the story of the family from before Shakespeare married Agnes (Anne Hathaway, as we know her) with the play appearing only at the very end of the book. As you read the novel you search for clues about the origins of not just Hamlet but all of Shakespeare’s writing.
Greenblatt’s article describes the technical developments that Shakespeare made to be able to show the inner life on the stage, to “invent the human,” as Harold Bloom calls it. Shakespeare tried it with a soliloquy in Richard III written in 1591 but Greenblatt describes it as “oddly wooden and artificial.” Shakespeare does better with Julius Caesar written in 1599 with Brutus shows signs of thinking in the soliloquy that includes:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
Most of Hamlet takes place in the “phantasma or a hideous dream” between when his father says that Hamlet must revenge his murder and when he takes his revenge. In that time we are unsure whether Hamlet is mad or pretending to be mad, whereas in the original version which Shakespeare used (as was common then) it is clear he is pretending to be mad. Greenblatt writes: “Shakespeare found that if he refused to provide himself or his audience with a familiar, comforting rationale that seems to make it all make sense, he could get to something immeasurably deeper.”
But the play is much more than a technical achievement. It is shot through with emotional energy. Where did that come from? Greenblatt argues that Hamnet’s death must have been one of the ingredients: “coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it [Hamlet] expressed Shakespeare’s deepest perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations.”
O’Farrell sets out to tell us how Hamnet’s death fuels the play. She has a fairly free hand as we know little about Shakespeare’s life, particularly after the death of Hamnet in 1596. The novel begins with Shakespeare, the Latin tutor, meeting Agnes and falling in love with her. Her mother was a creature of the forest, with all that forests imply of magic and the irrational. Agnes has the forest inside her, has a great knowledge of plants (Shakespeare’s plays are filled with plants), and has a gift of seeing everything about people. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul. There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.” Asked by Shakespeare what made her love him, she answers: “That you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.”
The couple have three children, including twins, Hamnet and Judith. Each of the twins constantly pretends to be the other, just as happens all the time in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare is disconsolate, lost in Stratford, and in the novel it is Agnes who engineers him leaving for London, initially to sell his father’s gloves. Through making gloves for actors, particularly boys playing women, he finds his way into the playhouses.
The plague comes to London and Stratford, and a chapter in the novel describes the journey of the flea that carries the bacillus from Alexander to Judith and then Hamnet. Judith survives, but Hamnet dies. The best writing in the novel describes the grief of the mother and father, the laying out of the corpse, and the burial.
Soon after the burial Shakespeare against Agnes’s wishes leaves for London. She continues distraught with a grief that her mother-in-law finds indulgent. He can find some peace in writing: “And as these words come, one after another, it is possible for him to slip away from himself and find a peace so absorbing, so soothing, so private, so joyous that nothing else will do.” The plays he is writing are comedies and history plays.
After several years, during which time Shakespeare returns only occasionally, Agnes is appalled to see that Shakespeare has written a play called Hamlet, abusing, as she sees it, her son’s name. She travels to London, probably to excoriate or at least understand him, and arrives at the theatre south of the river just as a performance is beginning. Shakespeare is playing the ghost, Hamlet’s murdered father, and Agnes sees that far from abusing his son’s memory he has done something magical:
“Her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear.
Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.”
Greenblatt sees other roots to Hamlet, including that Shakespeare and his father may have found it hard to discard the Catholic belief that after death the soul spends time in purgatory being cleansed of sins before admission to heaven. It was not permitted in Protestant Elizabethan England to pray for the soul in purgatory, but perhaps Hamlet is a sort of mass for his dead father as well as son. The Ghost says:
O’Farrell notes that the word pestilence does not appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays, but I’ve listened to a radio broadcast in which—in this time of pandemic—Greg Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, reflects on the role that plague may have played in Shakespeare’s life and writing. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000q9bp Shakespeare was born in a year of plague, and many other babies in the street where he was born died of the plague. Plague was constantly present throughout Shakespeare’s life, and with a mortality of nearly 50%, striking young and old, it was terrifying. The theatres were shut again and again because of the plague, and Doran speculates that Shakespeare may have joined a theatre troop when it was exiled from London to Stratford because of the plague.
The general thesis of the broadcast was that Shakespeare’s plays turned deep and tragic at the beginning of the 17th century and that the plague may have played a part in the transition—as might the Gunpowder Plot, which Doran suggests had the impact of 9/11. Doran finds plague imagery in Shakespeare’s plays and suggests that Romeo and Juliet may have been set in the time of the Black Death in the 15th century: “a plague on both your houses.” He suggests as well that the death that the Ghost describes in Hamlet could have been a description of the rapid death from plague:
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
We are perhaps blessed in knowing so little about Shakespeare’s life in that it allows much fascinating and imaginative creating.
Here are the quotes I took from Hamnet:
Quotes from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
When she had taken his hand that day, the first time she had met him, she had felt – what? Something of which she had never known the like. Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town. It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all – it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them.
They will be married. He will be a husband and a father, and his life will begin and he can leave behind this, all of this, this house, this father, this mother, the workshop, the gloves, this life as their son, the drudgery and tedium of working in the business. What a thought, what a thing. This child, in Agnes’s belly, will change everything for him, will free him from the life he hates, from the father he cannot live with, from the house he can no longer bear. He and Agnes will take flight: to another house, another town, another life.
Agnes now, as they enter the kitchen, as he stirs the fire and throws on a log, that her husband is split in two. He is one man in their house and quite another in that of his parents. In the apartment, he is the person she knows and recognises, the one she married. Take him next door, to the big house, and he is sullen, sallow of face, irritable, tetchy. He is all tinder and flint, sending out sparks to ignite and kindle.
‘That you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’
And as these words come, one after another, it is possible for him to slip away from himself and find a peace so absorbing, so soothing, so private, so joyous that nothing else will do.
‘No, the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else.
He and his friends have just performed a historical play, about a long-dead king, at the Palace. It has proved, he has found, a subject safe for him to grapple with. There are, in such a story, no pitfalls, no reminders, no unstable ground to stumble upon. When he is enacting old battles, ancient court scenes, when he is putting words into the mouths of distant rulers, there is nothing that will ambush him, tie him up and drag him back to look on things he cannot think about (a wrapped form, a chair of empty clothes, a woman weeping at a piggery wall, a child peeling apples in a doorway, a curl of yellow hair in a pot). He can manage these: histories and comedies. He can carry on. Only with them can he forget who he is and what has happened. They are safe places to stow his mind
‘I find,’ he says, his voice still muffled, ‘that I am constantly wondering where he is. Where he has gone. It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, I am thinking: Where is he, where is he? He can’t have just vanished. He must be somewhere. All I have to do is find him. I look for him everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience. That’s what I am doing, when I look out at them all: I try to find him, or a version of him.’
‘Do you know,’ he says, addressing the covering above him, ‘that this is the foremost reason I love you?…that you see the world as no one else does.’
She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.
‘I mean,’ he says, ‘that I don’t think you have any idea what it is like to be married to someone like you…..Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say – and what you might not – before you say it. It is,’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.’
She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.
‘She can look at a person and see right into their very soul. There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.’
His is a mind so quick, so attuned to others that she knows he can read her thoughts, like words written on a page.
You look like a ghost, standing there like that.’ Mary will tell herself, in the days and weeks to come, that she never said these words. She couldn’t have done. She would never have said ‘ghost’ to him, would never have told him that there was anything frightening, anything amiss about his appearance. He had looked entirely well. She never said such a thing.
How baffling the adult world seems to Hamnet at that moment, how complex, how slippery. How can he ever navigate his way in it? How will he manage?
He can pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.
How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?
He cannot tell, as he stands there, whether or not this new play is good. Sometimes, as he listens to his company speak the lines, he thinks he has come close to what he wanted it to be; other times, he feels he has entirely missed the mark. It is good, it is bad, it is somewhere in between. How does a person ever tell? All he can do is inscribe strokes on a page – for weeks and weeks, this was all he did, barely leaving his room, barely eating, never speaking to anyone else – and hope that at least some of these arrows will hit their targets.
Her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear.
Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.
There are other eggs, forming in her armpits, some small, some large and hideous, bulbous, straining at the skin. She has seen these before; there are few in the town, or even the county, who haven’t at some time or other in their lives. They are what people most dread, what everyone hopes they will never find, on their own bodies or on those of the people they love. They occupy such a potent place in everyone’s fears that she cannot quite believe she is actually seeing them, that they are not some figment or spectre summoned by her imagination.
The moment she has feared most, the event she has thought about, mulled over, turned this way and that, rehearsed and re-rehearsed in her mind, during the dark of sleepless nights, at moments of idleness, when she is alone. The pestilence has reached her house. It has made its mark around her child’s neck.
The doctor’s remedy for plague; ‘Madam,’ the physician says, and again his beak swings towards them, ‘you may trust that I know much more about these matters than you do. A dried toad, applied to the abdomen for several days, has proven to have great efficacy in cases such as these.
Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.
Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the relentlessness of it. It is like trying to stand in a gale, like trying to swim against the current of a flooded river, like trying to lift a fallen tree. Never has she been more sensible of her weakness, of her inadequacy. She has always felt herself to
And now she must give up this body, submit it to the earth, never to be seen again.
She can bear separation, sickness, blows, birth, deprivation, hunger, unfairness, seclusion, but not this: her child, looking down at her dead twin.
The sound that comes out of him is choked and smothered, like that of an animal forced to bear a great weight. It is a noise of disbelief, of anguish. Agnes will never forget it. At the end of her life, when her husband has been dead for years, she will still be able to summon its exact pitch and timbre.
How frail, to Agnes, is the veil between their world and hers. For her, the worlds are indistinct from each other, rubbing up against each other, allowing passage between them.
I am dead:
Thou livest; . . .
draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story
Rue, comfrey, yellow-eyed chamomile. She takes purple lavender and thyme, a handful of rosemary. Not heartsease, because Hamnet disliked the smell. Not angelica, because it is too late for that
And now there is this – this fit. It is altogether unlike anything she has felt before. It makes her think of a hand drawing on a glove, of a lamb slithering wet from a ewe, an axe splitting open a log, a key turning in an oiled lock. How, she wonders, as she looks into the face of the tutor, can anything fit so well, so exactly, with such a sense of rightness?