The title of Maggie O’Farrell’s book, Hamnet, informs you the story is about Hamnet Shakespeare. The hanging descriptor below the title disagrees. It says this is A Novel of the Plague. Both are disgusting lies.
OK – perhaps that’s an over-reaction. Ms. O’Farrell’s story does mention Hamnet and the plague frequently, but this is Anne Hathaway’s story, even though in the novel she is referred to as Agnes – the name her father called her. And as with Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies where the women are the most intriguing characters (with the exceptions of King Lear and Hamlet), Agnes is the star.
Agnes is a healer. She specializes in herbs and natural remedies. Her uncommon knowledge and skills are welcome and worrisome. To the Stratford villagers, it is known that Agnes is “fierce and savage, that she puts curses on people, that she can cure anything but also cause anything.” Shakespeare’s mother describes Agnes as “[t]his creature, this woman, this elf, this, sorceress, this forest sprite”. So she’s a feminist.
To Shakespeare, she is “peerless”. But she is not to be trifled with. She is “[s]omeone 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.”
Hamnet is a slow burn. It is set mostly in a sleepy and suffocating (for Shakespeare) Stratford. At times the story drags, but the themes of motherhood and grief are vital. They drive the story to a touching and satisfying conclusion.
So much mythology surrounds Shakespeare, but little is actually known about him. Much less is known about his family. This gives a talented novelist like Ms. O’Farrell an advantage. She can create these characters, make them real, and no one can quibble with her. Wisely, she never mentions Shakespeare’s name. That would only distract the reader with the myth. And this story isn’t about him anyway.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor